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Ship of state sails rudderless with lots of first mates
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

MAY 11, 2003 - - Six months after an election dominated by bumper stickers, ads, speeches and soundbites touting leadership, the ship of the State of South Carolina feels rudderless.

"I think it's a ship of too many first officers right now," said state Sen. Scott Richardson, R-Beaufort. "There are too many people trying to get their priorities at the top, but there's still time [for everything] to gel."

Disarray abounds. The state Senate continues to bicker about the $5.1 billion budget. There's even quiet talk that lawmakers could stay in session longer than the first week of June if the Senate doesn't get its act together.

Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Sanford hasn't been much of a major player in the legislative process and appears to be on a learning curve on how to deal with the Legislature. He floated big ideas - - income tax relief, smaller schools, restructuring - - late in the session, but those take lots of time. So far, lawmakers haven't dedicated much time to the governor's priorities due to a shrinking state budget in a sputtering economy.

Even the mostly-ceremonial lieutenant governor, the presiding officer of the Senate, hasn't helped. While earlier in the month, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer led the charge for "no new taxes," this week he was stopped at gunpoint for speeding - - not an inspiring example of good judgment.

About the only place where there's regimented, steady action is in the S.C. House, where Speaker David Wilkins pushed through a GOP legislative agenda as if he were leading the troops to Baghdad. Also in the House, the Democratic minority appears to be providing more opposition than ever before but are short lots of votes to do anything major.

"There is no leadership - - no direction for the state," one veteran Democratic lawmaker said. "Nobody is calling the shots. Nobody is taking a stand on hard issues. The biggest game in town is between the House and Senate."

Others blame the increasing partisan nature of politics at the Statehouse as the root cause of the erosion of real debate. An example is in the Senate Finance Committee, which traditionally has come to a general consensus on the budget before moving it to the floor. This year, Democrats complained they weren't as much of a part of the process as Republicans were when Democrats controlled the Senate. So they said the only place they could air their differences was on the Senate floor, which Republicans say is nothing but pure hokum.

So what's going to happen?

  • Lawmakers eventually will get together and pass a streamlined state budget with some kind of tax increase for Medicaid and education. The increasing pressure of the session ending will stop some of the posturing and force lawmakers to work together more - - just as happens every year.

  • The House and Senate will start some gamesmanship over priorities. The House, which as been doing little more than twiddling its thumbs for the last couple of weeks, likely will start "bobtailing" bills. That means they'll attach an already-passed House measure to a Senate bill that has any kind of similarity in an effort to get the Senate to move on House legislation.

  • Several bills that have passed each chamber in different forms - - campaign finance reform, Public Service Commission reform and a bill to curb predatory lending practices - - will find lawmakers working hard to hammer out a compromise before the first week of June.

But while the system surely will pressure lawmakers to move forward with the state's business, there's still a sinking feeling that this year, the state is facing a leadership crisis as well as a money crisis. Only time will tell.


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