SC 121st legislative session begins final countdown - DatelineCarolina

SC 121st legislative session begins final countdown

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By Cecilia Brown and Lia Grabowski

The South Carolina legislature has been in session for 36 weeks, and with only 9 more weeks left in the 121st legislative session, lawmakers must deliberate on dozens of bills, including massive roads legislation aimed at repairing the state’s aging highways and bridges.

South Carolina’s legislature runs on a two-year cycle, so bills introduced in 2015 may carry over through the 2016 session. With the session coming to a close this June, all bills not approved by both chambers and enacted into law will not be carried over into 2017. Those measures will have to be reintroduced in the next session if a proponent of the bill still hopes to win passage.

During the 121st legislative session, which spans Jan. 14, 2015 to June 2 of this year, 1,678 general bills have been introduced to date in the House and Senate. Of those, 148 have been passed and enacted by both chambers of the South Carolina legislature.

The deadline for introducing a bill into either chamber is quickly approaching. All bills must be introduced in the House by April 15 and the Senate by May 1 to have any chance of being discussed and potentially passed during this session.

In order to get measures signed into law, legislators must win passage in both the House and the Senate, meaning a bill must move from one chamber to be introduced in the other. As of May 1, this year’s crossover date, it will become much more difficult for a bill to move between chambers, encouraging the legislators to work through what items they have left to discuss before the end of the session.

After May 1, it will require a two-thirds vote from either chamber to bring a bill up for discussion, which is only likely to occur under rare circumstances.

Annual State Budget

The South Carolina legislature approved this year’s annual state budget on March 22. The budget exceeds $7.1 billion, including a 2 percent raise for state employees.

Concealed Weapon Permit

There are currently two bills in the House allowing the holder of an out-of-state concealed weapons permit to carry a weapon in South Carolina. One of the House bills would recognize permits issued by Georgia and North Carolina, under certain circumstances. Another suggests the out-of-state conditions to carry a weapon.

Ethics Reform Act

Ethics reform has become a prominent issue in this legislative session, actively sought by the governor for several years.

The House passed the bill quickly when it was introduced at the start of the session and sent it to the Senate by the end of January 2015. The bill was sent to committee in the Senate and wasn’t seen again until Feb. 3 of this year.  

In that span of time, Gov. Nikki Haley gave her State of the State address and implored senators to provide some sort of action on the ethics bill rather than let it die in committee. In a widely recognized bold statement, she paused in her speech to ask senators in the audience to stand up if they would support ethics reform, publically calling on them to support the bill and move it forward before the end of the session in June.

The bill itself would amend the 1976 Code of Laws on the state’s ethics commission. Under the amendment, the commission would be comprised of “four members appointed by the governor, four members elected by the Supreme Court, two members elected by the House of Representatives, and two members elected by the Senate.”

The duties of the members of the commission would also be revised to include receiving complaints against legislators, candidates, judges, or any members of staff, oversee the investigations of said complaints, and make a determination about whether an ethical violation has occurred. If a complaint is found to be substantial, the commission would refer the case to the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Supreme Court.

Domestic Violence

This session, Haley has signed slightly more than 100 bills, including a recent amendment to the 1976 Protection from Domestic Abuse Act. The amendment, signed into law on March 15, established domestic violence fatality review committees in each circuit of South Carolina and provided instruction on how the committees should be run.

This bill was a small step in South Carolina and proponents of increased domestic violence legislation are protesting the legislators’ inaction on the issue. High schools and law enforcement are working together to discourage domestic violence, and rallies are being held to persuade legislators to revisit bills that could die at the end of the session.

One domestic violence bill that has stayed in committee for over a year would create a legal consequence for “dating violence,” a term not currently recognized under South Carolina law.

Roads

A major issue the legislature has tried to tackle this session is funding for South Carolina’s roads, particularly in the aftermath of damage caused by the historic flood last October. There has been a variety of legislation proposed to solve the issue, but the most recent version is working its way through the legislature.

The legislation would allocate a recurring $400 million from the general fund and overhaul the state Department of Transportation. Lawmakers also debated raising the state’s gasoline tax, the lowest in the Southeast, to generate funds.

Haley declared in her State of the State address that she would only approve a gas tax if it was accompanied by a cut to the state’s income tax rates. When it became clear the gas tax would be a hard sell for the legislature, it was removed from the bill so there would be a better chance to pass any assistance for the deteriorating pothole-filled roads.

Included in the bill is a provision that would reconfigure the appointment process of the Department of Transportation.  Haley has supported the change, in which the governor’s office would now be in charge of appointing the Transportation Department positions.

Flood Relief

A separate piece of legislation also dealing with roads would devote $25 million to DHEC for financial assistance in the form of grants and loans to aid dam owners in repairing damage from the October 2015 floods.

In an attempt to provide assistance for South Carolina farmers after crops were lost during the flood, the bill was introduced Jan. 21. It moved through the House to the Senate in early March and was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Finance.

The bill would create a farm aid fund to supplement the minimal insurance relief provided to South Carolina farmers who lost more than 40 percent of their crops in last fall’s devastation. As provided in the bill, the amount given to any one farmer could not exceed $100,000 and would be equivalent to 20 percent of crops lost.

Tucker Hipps Transparency Act

Clemson University student Tucker Hipps died in 2014 while on an early morning run with his fraternity pledge brothers. His parents believe he was the victim of hazing when he fell to his death off a bridge near the university.

The Tucker Hipps Transparency Act would require institutions of higher learning to maintain reports of investigations and related information of members of sororities, fraternities and other organizations.

These institutions would be required to make reports available to the public and online, as well as supply students and their parents with reports before the student can begin the formal process of joining a sorority or fraternity. The bill was introduced in the House in January, and sent to the Senate on March 17 where it was referred to the Committee on Education on the same day.

Refugees

A bill pertaining to refugees was introduced in the Senate on Jan. 14. The provisions of this bill would require all refugees coming into South Carolina under the federal Refugee Resettlement Program to register with the state Department of Social Services.

Refugees would be required to provide DSS with such information as their name, phone number, address, employment information including employer contact information, criminal history, and any local, state or federal assistance received. This information would be passed on to the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division, which would be responsible for determining if the individual poses a public safety risk.

All of the provided information would also be required to be made public on SLED’s website database.

The bill also includes a provision that no state or local funds could be used to benefit a refugee who has been relocated to South Carolina through the Refugee Resettlement Program unless other legislation authorizes such spending.

The bill was filibustered earlier this month, but in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium, it has been brought to the forefront of discussion in the Senate and a decision will likely be made in the coming week. If it passes, the bill will go to the House to be approved before heading to the Governor’s desk.

Journalist Registry

In January, a bill was introduced in South Carolina legislature that quickly received national attention. It would require journalists to register to work in South Carolina prior to being hired by a media outlet. This bill would authorize registry fees and establish criminal penalty possibilities against journalists. Media companies and First Amendment advocates roundly criticized the bill. The bill is not expected to emerge out of the Committee on Labor, Commerce and Industry.

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