The 2015 legislative session began with a renewed sense of purpose under new leaders who promised to take care of business after an unsettled year in which the speaker of the House resigned in disgrace.
Gov. Nikki Haley put an exclamation mark on the urgency of finding solutions to the state’s pressing needs in January in her State of the State speech, stressing that ethics laws needed to be overhauled and proposing a tax trade-off to fix roads.
Lawmakers return this week after a holiday break with the answers as elusive as ever. Transportation funding, ethics reform and strengthening domestic violence penalties all are embroiled in feuds or stalled.
And, with less than a month before the Legislature is set to adjourn for the year, lawmakers say they are running out of time.
The “halftime” report on the legislative session:
Many lawmakers arrived in Columbia agreeing on at least one thing: The state’s roads and bridges are deteriorating and fixing them is going to take more money — a lot more money. An estimated $400 million a year would be needed just to maintain them, and more than $1 billion to improve them.
With lawmakers throwing out possible ideas for raising taxes to finding money for roads, Haley threw a wrench into their plans by drawing a line in the sand over raising the gas tax. The governor unveiled her long-promised roads plan after being inaugurated for a second term, proposing a gradual increase in the state’s gasoline tax offset by a massive income tax cut, and a reorganization of the state Department of Transportation. None of it was negotiable, she said.
GOP leaders have balked at the income tax cut, which would ultimately cost the state more than $1 billion a year.
Since then, the Senate and House have pursued separate plans that raise different taxes without cutting income taxes. Haley has threatened to veto both plans while traveling the state calling out lawmakers in their home districts for not following her plan.
Last year’s Post and Courier series “Till Death Do Us Part” exposed one of South Carolina’s darkest secrets: the epidemic of domestic violence that has cost more than 300 women their lives at the hands of husbands, exes and boyfriends during the past decade while the Legislature failed to act.
The series catapulted domestic violence to the top of legislative priorities, with the Senate quickly passing a bill that strengthened penalties for offenders and included a hotly contested gun ban on most convicted abusers.
That has been the high-water mark so far. The House has said the Senate moved too quickly and that it’s more comprehensive bill emphasizing education in classrooms to counter the culture of violence that perpetuates domestic violence is the better approach.
Sen. Larry Martin, who fought hard to get the Senate bill passed, and personally challenged Upstate senators who opposed the gun ban, disagreed. Martin has warned House leaders that failing to pass the Senate bill, or at least using it as the template, could result in nothing getting done on domestic violence this year.
The House hasn’t blinked so far, although some lawmakers say the Senate bill could yet become law.
Fresh off the downfall of House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the Charleston Republican who pleaded guilty to ethics charges and resigned last fall, Haley and the Legislature all but declared 2015 the Year of Ethics Reform after failed attempts in the past.
The House quickly passed about 20 ethics-related measures. Just as quickly, ethics reform hit a wall in the Senate.
As with overhauling domestic violence laws, the House and Senate couldn’t agree on who had the better approach. Senators criticized the House for taking small bites, and House leaders eventually relented and combined their measures into one bill. But that didn’t solve anything. The Senate has since gotten hung up over agreeing to an independent panel to oversee lawmakers’s conduct and use of campaign funds, which Haley has pushed to replace the current self-policing. Senate leaders have pointed at Harrell in saying only the House has a problem that needs to be fixed.
The ethics debate has also gotten tangled up in a feud between Senate Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Haley. Senators have said that Leatherman is determined to hold ethics reform hostage unless Haley gives ground on his top priority, transportation funding.
A shocking cellphone video showing a fleeing black man collapsing face-down in a North Charleston lot after being shot five times in the back by a white police officer has changed everything for a bill requiring law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
Before Walter Scott’s death and the filing of a murder charge against fired Patrolman Michael Slager, the body-camera bill was opposed by law enforcement agencies because of the cost. It had little, if any, momentum in the Legislature.
In the week since, the value of videos has been shown to be indisputable in questionable police shootings.
The Legislature’s black caucus held a news conference to say it’s imperative to pass it this session, and lawmakers are lining up to take credit as co-sponsors of the bill proposed by Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, and Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville.
“We invest in guns (for law enforcement),” said Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a co-sponsor. “We ought to invest in technology to save lives.”
Being arrested shouldn’t mean a lifetime of having your mug shot on the Internet, unless you are willing to pay a ransom. That was the intent behind a bill that would require online “extortion” sites to remove mug shots by request if someone is found innocent or charges are dropped.
That straight-forward proposition got caught up in a First Amendment fight when Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, pushed for language that would make news outlets take mug shots off their websites, as well. Newspapers and the South Carolina Press Association, of which The Post and Courier is a member, fought it as unconstitutional, and Thurmond deleted what senators had called a “poison pill.”
The full Senate hasn’t yet debated the bill, but a similar provision passed unanimously last year before the House declined to take it up. At least nine states have enacted similar laws.
Deeply in debt and relying on bailouts from the state just to pay its bills, the state’s only historically black public university was threatened with being shut down by lawmakers angered by years of mismanagement.
Instead, President Thomas Elzey, a former administrator at The Citadel, was fired by the school’s trustees, and the Legislature plans to finish the housecleaning by replacing the board.
The House and Senate plans for removing the trustees differ on who would replace the trustees.
Meanwhile, an auditor reported that the school’s debt could balloon to more than $20 million this year, and Elzey filed a lawsuit claiming the school owes him more than $400,000 for the remaining two years of his contract, plus other damages.
South Carolina doesn’t appear to be a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, but Rep. Chip Limehouse wants to make sure it stays that way. Limehouse, R-Charleston, has proposed a bill barring sharia law from being used as a defense in South Carolina’s courtrooms.
Attorneys or defendants in some family law cases have been known to cite sharia law, he said. There is little or no evidence that judges here or around the country subscribe to the law to make decisions.
Limehouse said in an interview that he plans to change the bill to say that judges shouldn’t consider anything based on any foreign law rather than singling out sharia law. He said the change would strengthen it against a legal challenge. Limehouse said he expects the bill to pass the full Judiciary Committee this week.
Pushing for expanded Second Amendment rights is a perennial favorite in South Carolina.
Measures allowing firearms on the state’s university campuses and allowing schools to offer an elective on marksmanship appear to be having as little success this session as they have in the past.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, wants to join forces with other like-minded states to add amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
As far-fetched as some say it sounds, two of three bills calling for a so-called convention of states to rein in federal spending and outlaw same-sex marriage have made it to the Senate floor.
For at least the second year in a row, the House passed a bill reducing the window for abortions by banning it after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Supporters of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act say the bill is necessary because a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks, which is disputed by the medical community. A Senate subcommittee amended it so that it could not be considered a personhood bill defining life as beginning at conception and giving a fetus legal rights.
Exemptions also were added for rape or incest, if the mother’s life is in jeopardy and for a fetus with a severe congenital or chromosomal anomaly. It awaits further committee hearings.
Thad Moore and Cynthia Roldan contributed to this report.