Reduce S.C. House speaker's power

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

COLUMBIA — Lawmakers spent the last day of the 2017 Statehouse session taking victory laps for increasing the gas tax for the first time in 30 years.

On top of that, some boasted getting more done in less time because this year's term ended weeks earlier than in previous sessions.

"Everybody went into this session with a little trepidation not knowing how the shortened session was going to be, so the anticipation was going to be that we might not get as much done," House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville said.

"When you look back over the last four months and you see we were able to pass a comprehensive roads bill in year one of a legislative session, that's certainly an outstanding accomplishment," he added.

Lucas also applauded the Legislature's work toward shoring up the state's troubled pension system that impacts one in nine South Carolinians. He called it a first step toward getting the pension system on sound footing.

While roads funding and a pension fix were at the top of the must-do list for lawmakers this year, few other big-ticket items made it through the General Assembly before the gavel struck at 5 p.m. Thursday, the official end of the year.

Since this is the first in a two-year session, legislation that did not become law can be addressed in January.

The gas tax increase to fix the state's roads systems takes effect July 1, going up 2 cents at the pump, the first of the annual increases until it reaches 12 cents. That's on top of the current 16.75 cents per gallon.

Bills that either would have expanded or limited access to guns stalled in the Senate, something Charleston Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson made sure to bring up during floor debate on legislation that requires new Realtors get background checks.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, told Kimpson that a Realtor would have to pass a background check, and have that check be complete, before being able to practice. 

"There's not much need for a background check if it's not complete," Kimpson said with a smirk before sitting down.

A bill co-sponsored by Kimpson that aims to address the so-called Charleston loophole did not get a vote in a Senate panel last week. Gun reform activists have targeted the errant background check process that allowed convicted Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof to buy a pistol two months before the shootings inside the Charleston church in 2015 despite having a pending felony charge. State law allows gun dealers to sell a gun if a background check has not been completed after three days.

Another bill that would allow those legally allowed to carry weapons to purchase guns without getting a concealed weapons permit and carry them openly or concealed also stalled in the Senate.

Legislation seeking to regulate abortion also stalled in the Statehouse, including a bill that would define a human being as a fertilized egg and another measure that would effectively ban the most common abortion procedure after 12 weeks of pregnancy. 

Both measures will have to wait until next year to either become law or be rejected by the General Assembly.

Lawmakers also adjourned for the year without appointing the members of the new State Ethics Commission, which eventually will be tasked with investigating the state's elected officials and candidates. The House confirmed all eight members earlier this month, but the Senate has yet to hold its vote.

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According to state law, the panel was to be in place by April 1, meaning that for more than a month, the state has had no one to investigate accusations of wrongdoing by public officials.

The lapse in having an Ethics Commission comes as speculation continues to swirl around an ongoing grand jury probe of Statehouse corruption. 

Legislators will return for a special session May 23 to tackle several outstanding topics and can confirm the commission nominees at that time. They also will continue working on several bills during the special session, including legislation establishing the role of the lieutenant governor once he or she must run jointly with the governor in 2018, and a proposal to establish a grading scale to rate the performance of state schools.

Additionally, the Legislature has yet to pass the roughly $8 billion budget bill which determines how the state will dole out money for the upcoming year. Lawmakers are required by law to pass the budget by July 1.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, lamented the Legislature having three fewer weeks to get things done. The General Assembly last year voted to shorten the session.

"Losing three weeks at the end of the session is really hurting us," Leatherman said of the need to meet to discuss the budget next week.

But Lucas said he's impressed with the work his chamber has accomplished this year.

"I've been here 19 years. There have been a lot of times I walk out the door and think maybe we didn't do enough," he said. "We worked hard this year and I think the accomplishments speak for themselves."

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.

Maya T. Prabhu covers the Statehouse from Columbia. She previously covered city government and other topics in South Carolina and Maryland. Maya has a bachelors in English from Spelman College and a masters in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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