Lawmakers contend with scandal, protests, elections on first day of session

From left, state Reps. Seth Whipper, Chip Limehouse and Wendell Gilliard talk before the start of the opening session of the S.C. House of Representatives.

COLUMBIA — The House speaker faces an ongoing ethics investigation, two members of the South Carolina chamber are running for higher office, and a former senator from Charleston still faces the possibility of a criminal probe.

Also, every member of the House of Representatives is up for re-election and lawmakers were greeted Tuesday by dueling protests on both sides of the Capitol.

Welcome to the start of the S.C. Legislature’s 2014 session.

There are substantive matters before both chambers: an education overhaul, infrastructure funding, ethics reform and “green” energy initiatives among them. But it’s unclear whether the House and Senate floors will be used for proxy campaigns as Democrats look to unseat Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Republican state Sen. Lee Bright challenges U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

An hour before the House took its first roll call of the year, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, faced the cameras and defiantly told reporters that he would carry on with business as usual, despite an ongoing criminal probe into whether he abused his position for personal gain. He said a grand jury investigation was politically motivated.

Interviewed outside the chamber, Republicans and Democrats were loath to address the scandal surrounding the speaker, and many said that despite some of the distractions, real movement on a number of issues is possible.

Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, said he looked forward to receiving Haley’s detailed budget, which she outlined in broad strokes this week. Haley wants to focus on education spending, particularly in some of the state’s poorest areas.

“I applaud the governor for taking initiative,” White said of the proposed education funding. White chairs the House’s Ways and Means Committee, which writes the House’s budget version.

The newest member of the state Senate was eager to get to work Tuesday. Freshman Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he would have preferred the Senate to start a substantive debate rather than adjourning around 1:30 p.m. Kimpson had taken the seat of longtime Charleston Democrat Robert Ford, who resigned last year after he faced allegations that he used campaign funds on personal expenses, including purchases at adult stores. The matter is still being reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office.

“The people of District 42 entrusted me with this awesome responsibility,” Kimpson said. “I’m going to be working diligently on their behalf to ensure that every child in the state of South Carolina gets a good education and that every citizen gets to live the American Dream.”

In front of the Statehouse steps, a rally was held to implore South Carolina lawmakers to nullify the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. While the law has survived legal challenge, many at the rally felt it was important to continue the fight and send a message.

Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, told the crowd that it shows South Carolina can lead the way. “We have shown the rest of the country that South Carolina knows what’s right,” he said.

Later, on the back side of the Capitol building, progressive groups placed a white coffin on the steps to symbolize those who die from lack of health care treatment, a message to the Republican governor and other lawmakers to accept Medicaid funding for South Carolina’s poor. Conservative lawmakers have rejected the funding, saying that although the federal government is picking up the tab for now, it may later stick the state for its Medicaid bill.

Mary Robinson, a 73-year-old from Bluffton, said at the rally that she hopes lawmakers avoid distractions and listen to the people. “They politicize everything,” Robinson said. “We need (lawmakers) to have a conscience.”

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.