NEWS: Clock is ticking on shortened legislative session

By Bill Davis, senior editor  |  With only a month left in this year’s legislative session, the state General Assembly appears to be about halfway through its agenda of “big ticket” items – the annual budget, pension reform, road funding and education reform.

Monday when neither the state Senate or House are in session, will mark the point in the session where it’s harder for new bills to gain traction as a two-thirds vote is required to send one bill from one chamber to the other. It is referred to as “crossover day.”

This year’s “crossover” is three weeks earlier than in the past as the legislature last year voted to lop of the final three weeks of the legislative session in what was billed as a tax savings for voters.

So far, only pension reform is finished and sitting on Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk for signing.  But the Senate approved its version of the budget this week, which will leave time for senators to talk about two other things passed by the House – gas taxes and education reform – until a compromise is worked out on the state budget.

Impact of shorter session

So with two of the four big issues mostly handled, is there still enough time to complete the important work? Has the shortened session eaten up valuable time or has it focused attention through new deadlines?

Simrill

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill (R-Rock Hill) remains a big fan of the shorter session, adding that he believed the problem continues to be a recalcitrant, slow-footing Senate, as in years past.

“Look, we’ve passed key legislation packages in the House: we already passed a budget, and a roads bill, which we’ve done infinauseum year after year,” he said.

Simrill lives close to the border with North Carolina, where the legislature moved “quickly in a bipartisan way” to address its roads issues, “and that means South Carolina is losing jobs every day to that state and even Georgia. They’ve already got contractors working.

“This isn’t just a ‘roads bill’ anymore, it’s about economic development, and we’re losing jobs and investment” because of delays in the state addressing its infrastructure deficits, he said.

Simrill said that the Senate made a mistake when it furloughed for the first two weeks of the session, losing valuable time in a tightened calendar.

Cobb-Hunter

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg), who has seen more than a few legislative sessions as the second-longest tenured member of the House, said she supported the shortened session.

“I have been saying for years that six months is way too long for a state our size; it has forced us to stop politicking and do more legislating,” said Cobb-Hunter, who was one of the conferees to sign-off on the pension reform bill.

But, Cobb-Hunter doesn’t throw the blame at the packed agenda going forward on the Senate, saying, “There are definite advantages to being deliberate.”

“I’m not a big fan of everything we’ve passed and included in our bills.  There are some things in there that need more attention,” she said, adding that the “speed” in which a bill passes doesn’t always mean it’s “good legislation.”

Her words harkened back to famous lines delivered in the past by former Senate President Glenn McConnell who likened the House to a racetrack “where anything can get passed,” and the results were usually “inartfully crafted” bills that the Senate would have to “fix.”

Shorter session is a learning process, senators say

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler (D-West Columbia), the longest-tenured member of that chamber, said this was a “learning process” in the first year of shorter sessions.

Setzler

But Setzler worried there will be enough time to complete work on a roads bill. “And that needs passing because the people of South Carolina want their roads fixed,” he said.

Grooms

Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Bonneau) deflected House criticism of Senate time management.

“On the first day of the session, they’ve already been meeting for weeks before on the budget in committee,” said Grooms, who praised the shortened session for “sharpening” the legislature’s focus.

Grooms called for a more “orderly” session wherein the Senate furloughs the first month of the session and the House the last month, and then they all come back for a final week to resolve all their differences.

“Nothing gets done without deadlines,” said Grooms.

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