Legislature’s gridlock fuels frustration

Speaker of the House Jay Lucas’ leadership has been faulted by some lawmakers as not forceful enough to settle disputes and get bills passed. Others, though, blame the gridlock in the Legislature on Gov. Nikki Haley’s aggressive tactics and the Senate’s unwillingness to compromise.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s legislative session began with new leadership in the House and Senate and high hopes of fixing some long-standing problems: an epidemic of domestic violence, poor roads and bridges and ethics reform.

But lawmakers headed home for the holiday break feeling that little has been accomplished — nearly all the priorities mentioned at the outset remain stalled by disagreements between the House and Senate or languishing because of disputes with Gov. Nikki Haley.

“I feel like we’re moving in slow motion,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. “I think everybody wants to be a leader. It’s like a fiasco.”

Some lawmakers are blaming their leaders, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Lucas ascended to the speaker’s post promising a fresh start as he replaced the long-serving and powerful Bobby Harrell of Charleston. At the same time, Leatherman’s rise to the top Senate post came after a years-long political whirlwind started by Glenn McConnell’s reluctant 2012 retirement from the Senate to become lieutenant governor. McConnell later became president of the College of Charleston.

By most accounts it’s been a difficult transition, in part because of different leadership styles.

Harrell, who ruled the House by dispensing favors and sometimes intimidation, resigned after pleading guilty last year to misusing campaign funds. But even his enemies conceded that when he wanted something done, it often got done. McConnell was considered a master at forging unlikely coalition to build consensus, whereas Leatherman’s early tenure has been marked by spats with the governor.

As a result, even bills that began with Haley’s endorsement and widespread support, such as reforming ethics laws or strengthening penalties for domestic violence, aren’t locks to pass this session.

Cracks began appearing early.

Lawmakers balked at Haley’s plan to raise more money for transportation projects by gradually increasing the tax on gasoline but offsetting it with a massive cut in the income tax. The House and Senate, meanwhile, haven’t been able to agree on which of their competing transportation plans is better.

The unpredictable and slow nature of the session has frustrated Haley and many lawmakers.

Haley has expressed her frustration in recent weeks by calling out the Legislature online and individual lawmakers in their hometowns. During a meeting last week with residents in Summerville, Haley called out Lowcountry senators and asked voters to write to pressure them to vote the “right way.”

Lucas’ leadership style reflects his belief that the vote of the 121st House member is just as important as the first. His aim is to bring all lawmakers into discussions, to build consensus to ensure the best bill passes the House.

“In years past, the decisions were made by a very few and the membership was expected to fall in line,” Lucas said. “I don’t think that’s a good way to govern for the people of South Carolina, and I certainly didn’t think it was a good way for the House to operate.”

But Lucas’ leadership has, according to some lawmakers who spoke on condition that their names not be used, created a power vacuum in the House. While no one said they were longing for the days when Harrell was in charge, some lawmakers said Lucas needs to be more forceful.

“Jay does not like to make anybody angry,” one lawmaker said. “He is certainly not confrontational, which you sometimes have to be.”

But there is no one style that is right or wrong, another House member said. It’s just that leaders should seek lieutenants, in this case the majority leader, to balance each other out. And most of the top leadership in the House all came to power during Harrell’s tenure.

“That doesn’t necessarily marry well with Jay’s personality style,” the second lawmaker said. “That’s not a negative on Jay. It’s not a negative on Bobby. It’s the reality of what it takes to be successful.”

Reps. James Smith, D-Columbia, and Rick Quinn, R-Cayce, said they find Lucas’ style “refreshing,” after Harrell.

“If you don’t build a consensus then what you really have is a dictatorship,” Quinn said. “I can remember there were times (under Harrell) that if you didn’t vote a certain way, you were going to be out. That’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the institution and it’s not good for the process.”

For senators, such as Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, frustration has built as the House and Senate pursued different tactics to achieve similar goals, something that normally is ironed out by leadership before it becomes an impasse.

On ethics reform, for example, Lucas’ approach was to pass around 20 separate bills rather than one comprehensive bill that could be stalled by opposition. The Senate ignored them until Lucas relented and combined the bills into one package proposal.

Hutto chalked it up to a rookie mistake by Lucas.

But the Senate is also missing the days of the McConnell compromise.

Harrell and McConnell were known for cobbling together unlikely coalitions to move the ball down the field. McConnell was known as a master consensus-builder, using his power of persuasion, personal relationships with other lawmakers and mastery of the rules to advance or slow the agenda.

Senators regard Leatherman as equally adept in some of those areas, but say he lacks the generosity McConnell could show his opponents.

Leatherman could not be reached this week despite numerous attempts to contact him.

“(Leatherman) understands how to move something,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston. “But more importantly, he understands how to stop something.”

Lawmakers in both chambers also place some of the blame on Haley’s tactics for the lack of progress this session. During an appearance in Florence last month, Haley did something that could linger with the Senate for the rest of the session: She called out Leatherman in his hometown and accused him of blocking ethics reform.

Leatherman took umbrage, and has essentially used the insult to slow down everything unless he gets a vote on more money for transportation.

A senior Republican senator said fellow senators are surprised the insult has affected the session the way it has. It has become increasingly clear, his colleagues say, that if the Senate’s transportation bill doesn’t move, neither will a bill reforming the state’s ethics laws — Haley’s top priority.

“I really didn’t think he would resort to pulling out all the stops to stop (ethics) or keep the Senate from taking (ethics) up,” the senator said.

Grooms said Haley is the fourth governor he’s served under and perhaps the least open to working with leadership to accomplish goals. Now, the session has become about placing blame more than anything else, he said.

Part of the problem is that Haley is looking to bolster her stature for the 2016 elections, and it’s making her aggressive, a House member said. Haley has threatened to veto the House and Senate roads funding plans because neither cuts taxes like her plan.

“We’ve done nothing because the governor was allowed to put (forth) this haphazard plan and there’s no one in leadership who is willing to say: ‘This is stupid,’” the House member added.

Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams reiterated that the governor does not view the feuding with the Legislature as personal, just the usual push and pull over whose policies will prevail.

“The governor, who has always believed it is her job to tell the people of South Carolina what is going on in Columbia, has approached this session the same as every other — for her, it’s never been personal, it’s about policy,” Adams said in a statement. “Governor Haley has enjoyed working with members of the General Assembly this session, and she has always praised them when they fight to move the state forward.

“When legislators have fought against reforms, she has called them out.”

The power struggle has left many with the feeling that not many bills will become law this year. The House passed several major bills tackling ethics and local government funding reform, while the Senate has passed a domestic violence bill that increases penalties and takes guns away from most batterers.

But the House has refused to take up the Senate’s domestic violence bill, preferring to work on its own measure that emphasizes education in schools to change the culture of violence.

Angered by the impasse, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said in March the Senate would “retaliate” in kind if the House did not take up the Senate’s domestic violence bill, which Martin fought hard to pass. But much of the delay with Senate bills in the House comes from years of resentment built up by both chambers — and no McConnell to smooth things out.

“Every year, we send tons of bills to the Senate and they never come back,” a House member said. “The Senate relies on its rules to kill House bills. And a lot of people in the House are just out of patience with it.”

Leatherman’s fellow Republicans also have become increasingly frustrated with his personal spat with the governor.

“That’s the perfect storm for gridlock,” Grooms said.

The veteran Charleston legislator said Haley, Lucas and Leatherman need to compromise.

“There’s a lot of pride at stake,” Grooms said. “And somebody’s got to make the first move toward reconciliation and I don’t know who would do that.”

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