Serious tone, weighty matters kick off S.C. Legislature under new leadership

Jay Lucas leads the House of Representatives on the first day of the South Carolina legislative session in Columbia on Tuesday.

COLUMBIA — Before bells beckoned South Carolina’s 121st Legislature to its respective chambers on Tuesday, the grounds of the Statehouse had already seen two news conferences.

It was a busy first day in Columbia, with the House and Senate both under new leadership. Not much lawmaking took place, though several committees from each chamber met to discuss looming issues, including criminal domestic violence and ethics.

The House had a more serious vibe at the outset under the leadership of new House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville. Lucas was elected to the position after former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to misusing his campaign account for personal benefit and resigned in October.

Tuesday wasn’t the first time Lucas took to the podium, but it was the first time the House reported to work under his rules. Unlike previous sessions, House members rushed to their seats to promptly start at noon, and Lucas quickly gaveled everyone into session. The House adjourned before the hour was over.

Charleston Republican Rep. Jim Merrill said there wasn’t much “newness” going on Tuesday, because veteran legislators had already met rookie lawmakers during November’s organizational session.

“Everybody is ready to get rolling and get some of this past stuff behind us,” Merrill said. “The budget is going to occupy the majority of our work over the next few days. We’ve got way more things to spend money on than we’ve got money.”

Merrill said Lucas is doing a great job, adding Lucas had a “common touch about him.” Before adjourning for the day, the Republican Women’s Caucus gave Lucas a plaque titled “Just Jay” for his office.

Across the hall, senators trickled in, started later and stayed longer. They re-elected Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, as president pro tempore, and continued with routine tasks, such as picking their seats and reading pre-filed bills.

Tuesday also was the last day South Carolina’s second in command is a Democrat. Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill donned his purple robe. On Wednesday, Republican Lt. Gov.-Elect Henry McMaster will be sworn in.

After the Senate adjourned, members of the Senate’s Domestic Violence Subcommittee got into the details of amendments proposed by the Attorney General’s Office, while other senators also discussed possible new ethics rules two floors below.

The Domestic Violence Subcommittee gave a first OK to passing tougher penalties for repeat offenders and to including threatening phone calls and text messages in the state’s definition of domestic violence.

Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said there was nothing really different about Tuesday’s session. Everybody is just getting ready to address the issues the state faces, he said. What did stand out to Thurmond was that Leatherman said the Senate would fully vet the governor’s appointees.

“In the past, it appears to have been a quick and not-getting-into-the-weeds-of-the-applicant process,” Thurmond said. “That is fairly new to me. I think that given our past challenges that we’ve had with some of the appointed positions, I think that it would be best for us to make sure to fully vet the applicants.”

Staff writer Thad Moore contributed to this story. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.