The coming year in S.C. politics

State Sen. Larry Grooms isn't optimistic that much of substance will get done during the six-month Statehouse session that starts Tuesday.

As the Berkeley County Republican sees it, this year's race for governor between GOP incumbent Nikki Haley and challenger state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, will find a way to creep into most of what transpires.

Add in the fact that the entire House of Representatives is up for election in 2014, and that a conservative lawmaker from Spartanburg - Sen. Lee Bright - also is running against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in the GOP primary, and Grooms said the upcoming session could be remembered more for political punches than measurable accomplishments.

Still, there's a full plate of items that supporters want to see passed this year, some of which will come early in the session, including ethics reform, the so-called federal nullification bill and whether guns can be legally carried into bars, clubs and restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages.

Here is a breakdown of some of the top issues in 2014:

South Carolina Democrats began their efforts to unseat Republican Gov. Nikki Haley months ago as virtually every move she's made has been met with a quick reply from Democratic Party headquarters.

Now the state's political eyes turn toward the Legislature to see who might support, thwart or sidetrack legislation supported by Haley or her announced Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden.

While some Republicans predict that Democrats are waiting to pounce, Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg said he doesn't expect the body to become overtly partisan because of next November's election showdown.

"If past history is any judge, we did not try to make the floor into 'campaign central,'" he said.

Last year, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle quickly cooperated to make it harder for mentally ill people to get their hands on guns after Beaufort resident Alice Boland tried to fire a handgun at Ashley Hall school in Charleston. This year, there's more gun legislation on the table.

Republican state Sen. Sean Bennett of Summerville has a measure pending that would allow residents with state-issued concealed weapon permits to carry their guns into restaurants, bars or other locations licensed to serve alcohol.

To have the law's protection, however, you cannot consume at all while you are carrying, Bennett said.

Opponents say allowing guns in places where alcohol is served would create a dangerous mix. Bennett said the law simply extends the doctrine of self-protection. The bill came close to passing last year but time ran out.

When a Charleston judge reduced the sentence for a man convicted of killing a woman in a DUI accident, the victim's family didn't know about it for months.

State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, has filed a bill saying judges in the state wouldn't be allowed to alter, modify or rescind a defendant's criminal sentence unless the court has held a hearing allowing all the parties to be notified and heard.

The filing comes after Circuit Judge Thomas Hughston Jr. cut in half a 15-year prison sentence he imposed for drunken driver Samuel McCauley, who at age 19 killed Eleanor Caperton, 72, in a crash on Interstate 26 in 2011.

Houston took the action after McCauley's attorney presented information that his original sentence was too high compared with other felony DUI cases in the county. The move was done without a formal hearing, angering Caperton's family.

Conservative Republicans are pushing a bill that would essentially nullify Obamacare in South Carolina. House Bill 3101, or the "Freedom of Health Care Protection Act," would void the Affordable Care Act in South Carolina, making it unenforceable in this state. It would also prohibit South Carolina from establishing a health insurance exchange and would set up a tax deduction for residents fined by the federal government for not purchasing health insurance - a new requirement starting in 2014.

The state House of Representatives already passed the bill in May. The state Senate is scheduled to debate it next, even as critics say the nullification push is more saber-rattling than legitimate action because it would be unconstitutional.

Perhaps the earliest fight of the session will be the Senate consideration of an ethics reform effort supported by Gov. Nikki Haley.

Haley went on a statewide tour in the fall supporting legislation that would require lawmakers to publicly disclose their sources of outside income. South Carolina is one of four states without such a rule.

"If you know who pays your legislator," she said at the time, "then you know why legislators vote the way they do."

The bill requires legislators to report sources of income and also removes the current system of lawmakers investigating each other following an alleged ethical breach.

Instead, the State Ethics Commission would do the investigation when such a case arises, though the disciplinary action, if any, would still be determined by other lawmakers. It passed the House earlier.

Democrats say Haley doesn't enter the ethics discussion free of criticism - she's described her past brushes with ethics issues as falling into "gray areas" that need clarification.

Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, has taken a point position in trying to raise money for roads and bridges.

For example, Senate Bill 891 would increase the state's current 16-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax (one of the nation's lowest) by 2 cents a year until 2023, when it would reach a cap of 36 cents a gallon.

As Cleary sees it, South Carolina has habitually kicked the can down the road on keeping the state's roads up to par. Without a dedicated commitment, the state will find itself further behind in trying to maintain roads, bridges and infrastructure. It's a top issue for the state's business community.

"Everybody knows it's a problem," he said. "Do you want to handle the problem now or a year from now or two years from now?"

He has offered almost 20 amendments to a House bill to raise funds for roads, including proposals to increase the state's driver's license renewal from $25 to $35 every 10 years, to increase license plate renewals by $6, to $18 a year, and to require licenses for trailers.

"Do you want to take this thing up every year for the next 10 years? Because it's not going away," he said.

Other lawmakers may be slow to endorse, especially as they say the highway department needs reformed first and rural/urban spending inequities addressed.

For many years, South Carolina's governors have pointed out that this is the only state where major administrative decisions are made not by them but by a five-member Budget and Control Board. And they have sought to change that.

But legislation to dissolve that board and instead create a new Department of Administration have failed so far, as House members and Senators failed to agree on exactly how much more administrative authority they want to give the governor's office. The issue will resurface this year.

State Rep. Bill Crosby, R-North Charleston, has been among the lawmakers pushing for the change, and Crosby says the major remaining hang-up seems to be whether the governor should be given authority to oversee state purchasing or whether that should be handled by a successor agency to the Budget and Control Board.

There has been less disagreement about giving the governor the power to manage the state's property and fleet, human resources and information technology.

"They're going to have to compromise," Crosby said, adding he would be in favor of eliminating purchasing from the governor's new powers if that would get a new Department of Administration passed into law.

Mayor Joe Riley has rekindled efforts to build the International African American Museum downtown across from the S.C. Aquarium. But part of that effort hinges on getting $25 million dedicated from the General Assembly toward the $75 million project.

Riley plans to be in Columbia on Wednesday lobbying lawmakers to support the idea. His hope is to get the money approved over two fiscal years, between 2014 and 2016, with $12.5 million dedicated in each.

No formal meetings are planned, he said, but as a former member of the Legislature, Riley has privileges allowing him access to both the House and Senate floors where he plans to bring up the topic with lawmakers.

The city and Charleston County will put up $12.5 million each, with the remaining one-third to be raised from private sources.

The Common Core State Standards, the way teachers are evaluated and compensated, tax credits and education funding likely will be among the top education issues during the upcoming legislative session.

But the most visible fight will be over Gov. Nikki Haley's recently announced education plan designed to spend more on poor children, stress reading in the earliest grade levels and add more technology access, such as strengthening Internet capabilities.

The price tag for Haley's initiative would not be cheap- $160 million at a time when budget writers say this will be another tough spending plan year.

While Democrats criticized the plan as late to arrive, lawmakers said last week they were still waiting to explore the details but were optimistic.

Meanwhile, Haley's re-election foe, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, wants to build on his plan to expand the availability of kindergarten for 4-year-olds statewide.

Just like every year during the recession, money needed to run state government remains tight. Legislators will have to deal with competing budget requests, as health care and education needs drive a significant portion of the state's projected $6.8 billion general fund.

While budget officials have projected a $95.3 million surplus, agency requests exceed that amount by $92.8 million, state budget director Les Boles said in a briefing with reporters last week.

That's without the requested $160 million that Gov. Nikki Haley says is necessary to improve grade school education statewide.