NEWS: Legislature’s Year of the Turtle

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A news analysis by Andy Brack  |   The 2015 session of the General Assembly will go down as the Year of the Turtle. Far more didn’t happen than could have. Missed opportunities trumped progress on everything from more road funding to improving education to passing long-sought ethics reform, according to many observers this week.

Most voters and leaders generally agree that something major needs to be done on roads, which have $40 billion in funding needs, as well as ethics reform, long in the spotlight following last year’s scandal that brought 00_newsanalysisdown a House speaker. But the devil has been in the details and lack of common ground among lawmakers, notes College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts.

“This is somewhat surprising since both branches of the legislature are controlled by the same party,” he said. “You might expect to see inaction from a bipartisan legislature, or a legislature from one party and a governor from another party, but this is not the case in South Carolina.”

Barton Swaim of the S.C. Policy Council called the 2015 session “one of the least productive and most disingenuous legislative sessions I can remember. The whole thing was dominated by gas tax hike proposals and lawmakers trying to pretend it was something other than a tax hike.”

15.0605.turtleOverall in 2015, the Legislature left a lot of big-ticket items on the table which was caused, in most cases, by gridlock and bickering between chambers. But just as they left a lot of big things undone, that also means they didn’t get to some headline-grabbing, narrow social issues, such as banning abortion at 20 weeks, denying equal rights to the LGBT community, outlawing Sharia law, and abandoning concealed weapons permits to allow anyone to carry a gun for any reason.

“Some legislators — a very small number — wanted to fight culture wars and hold up needed legislation on education funding, justice reforms and oversight that would make South Carolina stronger in the 21st century,” said Victoria Middleton, head of the ACLU of South Carolina. “Taxpayers should be concerned that a handful of state representatives, taking extreme positions, want to impose their views on the majority who want to see constitutional values upheld.”

While all of the issues on the table at the end of the session that will still be on the table in 2016, let’s take a look at what got done, what didn’t get done and some issues that just seemed to disappear into the legislative quicksand.

What got done in 2015

The legislature approved few major bills, although its actions will allow the state grand jury to investigate human trafficking, allow charities to conduct raffles and require more emphasis on civics education. One big that may impact a lot of people is that anyone 60 or older will be able to attend state college classes for free if they meet college requirements. More.

“Progress has been made on some issues,” Columbia analyst John Ruoff said. “We had Republican senators co-sponsor an amendment in Senate Finance to close the [health] coverage gap, changing the conversation to an Arkansas-like approach to covering those too poor for the marketplace but ineligible for current Medicaid because of income or family structure using federal funds. A Senate subcommittee is seriously working on a House bill that changes our Freedom of Information Act to create a much more user-friendly process through the Administrative Law Court to access public records and other changes to improve access to public records.”

Here are some other highlights of the 2015 session:

Haley

Haley

Domestic violence. Gov. Nikki Haley on Thursday signed into law a bill that toughens penalties against domestic abusers in South Carolina, ranked second nationally in the number of women killed by men. The measure, pushed by the media and by activists, includes tougher criminal penalties. Also, anyone convicted of domestic violence may not possess a firearm. A judge may decide to keep firearms away from anyone who is under a protective court order. More.

Volvo deal. The state lured Volvo to locate its first American plant in South Carolina, but lawmakers this week criticized Haley and the state Commerce Department for borrowing $123 million to pay for incentives. The financing method used to pay for Volvo’s incentives will require taxpayers to pay $87 million in interest — about $20 million more than through conventional bonding, according to media reports. Interestingly, Haley pitched a fit earlier this year when House lawmakers proposed a $500 million bond bill to pay for overdue higher education improvements and other infrastructure needs. The Senate later proposed a $236 million bond bill, which was axed in mid-May.

Body cameras. Following the grisly police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, lawmakers roundly supported using body cameras as an accountability measure for police. In the waning moments of the session, legislators sent a bill to the governor that calls for police departments to establish policies on body cameras, which will allow them to then get state money to buy and use them. More.

Alimony reform. Lawmakers passed a bill into law that will form a special study committee to look at reforming the state’s alimony laws. More.

S.C. State. The legislature got rid of the board of trustees of S.C. State University and passed a measure for an interim board to serve until 2019 or until a new board is elected. More.

What didn’t get done in 2015

Despite the work that got done, the 2015 session will be remembered more of what did not get done and how bickering lawmakers let smaller issues get in the way of the big picture. Notable:

Budget. Despite lots of House and Senate bickering throughout the session on myriad issues, state law actually requires passage of an annual budget, which essentially forced lawmakers to complete the annual spending bill of $7 billion in state tax revenues. The problem: Legislators didn’t finish. They had hoped to finish by Thursday and return June 16 to deal with gubernatorial vetoes. Now, they’ll return to finish the budget, try not to argue too much more on road funding and deal with vetoes sometime later in the summer.

15.0109.potholeRoads, roads, roads. The number one thing on everyone’s agenda at the beginning of the year was to figure out a way to spend more on road and bridge maintenance. While a compelling majority of South Carolinians say they’re willing to raise the state gas tax significantly from its low 16.75 cents per gallon fee, lawmakers argued and filibustered over road funding. In the end, they generally did agree to dedicate $220 million in surplus monies for road projects (let’s see what happens later this month), but they’ve got a long way still to go to patch the potholes and make bridges reliable. This will be at the top of the agenda for 2016.

Ethics reform. A huge issue left over from the 2014 session, lawmakers seemed early to think that new accountability and ethics rules would be a fairly easy thing. But the issue bogged down in the Senate, which couldn’t get past whether lawmakers should be on a reformed ethics committee. Inaction took the day, as most expect it to return next year.

Tax reform. Another year went by without comprehensive tax reform. Before the session started, it looked like lawmakers would start talking about the possibility of an earned income tax credit (EITC) to help lift poor, working people out of poverty. That didn’t materialize either.

Every year, pundits complain that we have not done “tax reform,” but the only changes getting serious attention are those that cut the progressive income tax, especially on the top end, or raise or expand the regressive sales tax — especially by repealing exemptions on tangible goods, the financial bulk of which are made up of things like the groceries we buy, the prescriptions we purchase, and the water and electricity that comes to our homes,” said policy analyst John Ruoff of Columbia. “[These are] exemptions which meliorate the regressivity of our sale taxes.

“There is real tax reform to be done, like adopting a refundable state EITC, flipping the cap on sales taxes on cars, yachts and airplanes to a floor, and taxing more services rather than more tangible goods. We would be wise to repeal a number of the tax “reforms” we’ve already done — Act 388, the pass-through-entities tax cuts and changes to apportionment of corporate income taxes would be high on my list. But the tax reform conversation has to change.”

Abortion ban. Conservative lawmakers tried to get through a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, but one of their own, Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, gummed up the works with a filibuster — because he didn’t think it was tough enough. As the legislature ground to a halt, the House took out some exceptions inserted by the Senate and there wasn’t enough time to finish — which gave pro-choice activists time to pause to get some fresh air.

Local government fund. The House passed a bill, but the Senate hasn’t dealt with this issue yet. Local governments strongly opposed the move to lower the amount received by local governments from the state.

Lost in legislative quicksand

As next year’s session approaches, lawmakers and policymakers will move on other issues, such as dealing with institutional problems at the Department of Social Services, modernizing funding for public education as required by a Supreme Court ruling. Other issues that may come up involve Medicaid expansion and workforce development.

The ACLU’s Middleton observed that the General Assembly showed it could work efficiently this year. Example: Passage of the body camera legislation.

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