Legislature tackles budget-related issues, Senate leader is asked to step down

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.

COLUMBIA —The South Carolina Legislature had a hectic return Tuesday from nearly a two-week break after failing to pass a budget or decide how to spend the state’s rainy day fund during the regular six-month session that ended June 4.

The Senate advanced a resolution that keeps the government funded through July 24 to ensure all of the state’s obligations are met and employees are paid. Senators also amended the resolution to allow Gov. Nikki Haley to retain the capability of appointing the secretary of the Department of Transportation, a provision that was set to expire on at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

The votes came after Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, called on Sen. Hugh Leatherman to step down as president pro tempore, suggesting that the 83-year-old Florence Republican had taken on too much as leader of the Senate and chairman of its Finance Committee.

Leatherman did not respond. He also did not resign either of his positions.

The Legislature is in Columbia this week for a special session lasting through Thursday. Among the business they are trying to take care of is adopting the state’s roughly $7 billion budget. Failure to pass it could lead to a government shutdown.

In addition to passing the resolution keeping the state from running out of money while the budget remains in limbo, senators also sent the capital reserve bill back to the House, tackling how to spend how to spend the state’s rainy day cash reserves. It’s passed easily on a 37-5 vote after being held up for weeks by Beaufort Republican Sen. Tom Davis’ weeks-long filibuster.

Davis single-handedly prevented a vote on allocating the capital reserve fund over his objections to using it for higher education rather than roads. Saying he had made his point, Davis said he would drop his opposition to the bill during the special session.

“What that says to me is 37 senators believe that funding university buildings or deferred maintenance on buildings is more important than funding deferred maintenance on roads and bridges,” Davis said. “I just think that is not a proper determination of where the state’s real capital needs are.”

Across the hall, the House spent the day debating amendments to a bill that spells out how to spend $415 million in surplus revenue. It advanced with minor changes, with $145 million going to roads.

The House will continue its furious schedule Wednesday. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, are expected to make a bipartisan push to amend the resolution that called them back into session this week to include the House roads plan as one of the issues they must tackle.

“I think that the House has an appetite to continue to work on roads,” Lucas said. “We can’t do that unless the Senate takes our bill up. So we want to give them an opportunity to do that.”

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, made a futile attempt to do the same on Tuesday, by requesting unanimous consent.

Peeler wasn’t the only one who expressed frustration with this year’s unproductive legislative session. But his remarks were the most stunning.

Lourie said Peeler’s comments calling Leatherman’s leadership into question made many senators uncomfortable. He added that the Senate failing to pass major legislation should not fall on Leatherman, but illustrates the deep division among Republicans.

“I think what caught us all by surprise with this is that there are at least two well-documented roll call votes on trying to put the roads bill for special order and the vast majority of Republicans voted no,” Lourie said. “And in each of those instances, Leatherman voted ‘yes.’”

Peeler said he believes Leatherman is capable of being Senate pro tem and chairman of the Finance Committee, but being both is too much for one person.

Peeler noted several legislative effortsfailed this session, such as roads funding and ethics reform, adding that the state is flirting with a government shutdown.

Peeler said those were examples of why the Senate needs a leader who is focused on the mission of keeping the chamber functioning. He said he hoped his speech would trigger a conversation about distributing the workload among senators in a better way.

“Some people call it too much power,” Peeler said. “I say it’s too much responsibility for one person.”

Lucas also expressed his frustration with the Senate as a whole. He said the House has passed a budget twice now, yet with a mere 14 days left in this fiscal year the state does not have a budget.

“We have left no task incomplete,” Lucas said. “We have patiently waited for the Senate to do something. Anything. And we continue to wait.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.