COLUMBIA — One of South Carolina's most influential business advocacy groups has decided to throw its support behind a hate crimes bill heading into the 2021 legislative session, a move that could help push the yearslong effort across the finish line.
S.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO Ted Pitts told The Post and Courier the organization will actively back efforts to pass a hate crimes bill next year in hopes of ending South Carolina's status as one of only three states without such a law on the books — a statistic that he said businesses may consider when choosing where to locate.
"The conversation that the country is having now around social injustice and equity is something that businesses are having and in a lot of cases have been having every day," Pitts said. "So when you look at a place where your employees live and work, you want to have a state that has the same values that those companies have."
The Chamber sent a letter to South Carolina elected officials Tuesday signed by more than 80 leaders of top business, nonprofit or educational institutions around the state encouraging them to pass a hate crimes bill in January and "let the world know that South Carolina is not a state that condones crimes motivated by hate."
The legislation would enhance penalties for crimes committed against victims who were intentionally selected because of characteristics like race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, national origin, or physical or mental disability.
Without such protections, experts say police and prosecutors are left with inadequate tools to seek justice in certain cases. But efforts to pass such a bill in years past have repeatedly struggled to gain traction in the Statehouse.
The Chamber's decision follows neighboring Georgia's swift moves earlier this year to pass a similar hate crimes bill amid nationwide protests over the killings of Black men at the hands of White men. Two of the most high-profile victims — Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks — were in Georgia.
Pitts said the conversation for the South Carolina chamber had been spurred in part by member businesses that operate in both Georgia and South Carolina and wanted to continue the momentum after their success in the Peach State.
Those businesses included companies like UPS, the multinational package delivery company that is headquartered in Georgia but employs around 6,000 people in South Carolina.
"Our greatest strengths are the diversity of our people and the unique qualities that each one of them brings to work every day," UPS public affairs director Jeff Wafford told The Post and Courier. "So for us, hate crimes legislation ensures that there are harsh penalties for people who want to commit crimes towards others simply based on them being unique."
A number of South Carolina lawmakers, especially Democrats and members of the Legislative Black Caucus, have been pushing for a hate crimes bill for years. Prominent supporters also include top law enforcement officials, like Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, and prosecutors, like Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson of Charleston.
Charleston and Greenville have municipal ordinances, but penalties are limited to small fines.
But the endorsement the chamber could help win over business-minded conservatives who might otherwise be reluctant to back the proposal, said state Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia, one of several lawmakers who have been working on a hate crimes bill for the next session and reached out to the chamber.
"I think the more stakeholders who take an interest in this issue, the better, and I think this endorsement shows the importance of having hate crimes legislation for businesses to want to relocate here to South Carolina," Bernstein said.
The only remaining states without some form of hate crimes law are South Carolina, Arkansas and Wyoming. That list could shrink even further soon, however, as Arkansas' Republican governor and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have ramped up efforts to pass a bill there.
In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster's position has not changed since a 2018 debate in which he said the state already has "enough hate crime laws," according to McMaster's spokesman Brian Symmes, despite the chamber's support of a new bill.
Whether McMaster would actually veto such a bill, which would force lawmakers to clear a higher threshold of votes to pass it into law, is "entirely dependent on it reaching his desk and the content of any bill that may make it that far in the legislative process," Symmes said.
A special subcommittee set up to examine potential criminal justice reforms in the wake of the summer protests already held a hearing on hate crimes in August, receiving testimony from members of the public and sharpening their proposed legislation.
Under the current working proposal, fines could increase by up to $10,000 for perpetrators of violent hate crimes, $5,000 for stalking or harassment offenses and $1,000 for property damage. Prison time could rise by up to five years for violent crimes, three years for stalking or harassment and one year for property damage if deemed a hate crime.
Bernstein said she is optimistic that work in advance of the next legislative session in January will help fast-track a bill through the House, hoping to avoid losing momentum amid the array of other pressing issues lawmakers will be dealing with due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.