State House Update: April 7, 2017

This Week in the South Carolina State House, senators approved the $8 billion budget, House members approved an open-carry gun bill, the pension reform bill heads to Gov. Henry McMaster, and crossover day has come and gone with 12 working days left in the legislative session.

House members contentiously debated a bill Wednesday to allow people to openly carry guns without a permit or training. Rep. Mike Pitts’ bill, H. 3930, passed the Republican-controlled House 64-46 (view history here), after both Democrats and Republicans decried the fast-track tactics leadership employed to rush the bill out.

“I hope that in the future, that as we move forward, that the majority party will have some consideration to know that the minority party is here to have a voice that you all may not always want to hear from,” Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, said. “ invoke cloture shame on you. And shame on this leadership for allowing that to happen.”

Pitts and others who defended the measure during the limited debate—as required under cloture—said the bill truly upholds the Second Amendment.

“By definition of the Constitution the Second Amendment right, held up by two Supreme Court decisions, gives you the ability to keep and bear arms without being permitted by the government,” Pitts said. “Keep in mind, this is not a privilege, like your driver’s license granted by the bureaucracy of the state, it is a right guaranteed in your Bill of Rights.”

The bill moved so quickly that no testimony was even given for or against it in the committee process, in an effort to pass the chamber before the Thursday crossover deadline. Many Republicans didn’t want to vote for it, several dissented with Democrats, but many felt compelled to, due to their beliefs.

“In this body that (freedom of speech) is the most important thing, we have to represent the people that send us here,” Rep. Gary Clary, R-Clemson, said in a passionate speech slamming the limited House debate on the bill.

“And when we tell the folks that don’t have enough votes to pass a bill, or to defeat a bill, that we’re going to cut off the debate, that we’re going to cut off their right to speak, then we’re telling them that the 35 to 38,000 people that they represent are irrelevant.”

The perennial bill became a lightning rod after House members rejected a move by Rep. Johnathon Hill, R-Townville, to recall his open-carry gun bill from the Judiciary Committee earlier in March. In order to offset the vote against the move by many Republicans, including Pitts, another bill was pushed through the legislative process, lawmakers said.

Despite the tactic, Rep. Mike Ryhal, R-Myrtle Beach, pulled back the curtain a bit before the vote to show what House leadership is banking on—the Senate stopping the bill.

“As I walked around today and talked to everybody, I keep hearing, ‘I’m going to vote for it, but I don’t like this piece of it, but I’m going to vote for it, maybe when it goes across to the Senate, they’ll take care of this and we won’t have to deal with it,’” Ryhal said. “Really folks? Is that why you were sent here?”


Pension Reform

Earlier Wednesday, House members gave final approval to the pension reform bill that both chambers have been working on, since before the start of session. The Senate also approved the conference committee report, which is a compromise bill that worked out the differences between both chambers. The major piece of legislation is the first step in addressing the growing $20 billion pension shortfall. This year, $145 million is in the budget to cover increased contributions to the fund.

Work is expected to start soon on phase two of the plan.

“I think we’ve solved the problem on this as close as we could,” Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton said.

The Senate passed the $8 billion budget on Thursday and will soon work out compromises with the House.


Bond Bill for Roads

Thursday was crossover day in the State House. Bills needed to be passed by either chamber in order to have any shot of making it into law this year. Bills can still potentially make it to the governor’s desk after this day, but it is a more difficult process.

The day was moved up a month this year, compared to years past, since the legislative session was shortened by a month this year.

Earlier in the week, House Democrats and Republicans alike were frazzled by a letter from Gov. Henry McMaster, who said he would veto the current $800 million roads bill and suggested borrowing up to $1 billion to fix crumbling state roads.

McMaster said in his letter that deferred maintenance needs of state agencies and higher education institutions were not as “urgent” as those of the roads and suggested borrowing for roads instead. He added he would veto the current borrowing bill 3722—which is still in the House—as it currently reads.

“Understanding that our need for road repair has gone from important to critical to urgent, I believe that this should be our top priority for spending,” McMaster wrote Tuesday. “Our state has many important needs in health, education, criminal justice, and facilities repair and maintenance, but none are as urgent as the commerce and safety directly linked to our roads.”

A study by the S.C. Dept. of Transportation found the agency needs roughly $1 billion annually for two decades to get road conditions in the state to good.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, who helped craft the bond bill, said McMaster was playing politics with the bill, while he continues to posture for his 2018 gubernatorial bid.

“We wouldn’t want to necessarily subscribe a motivation to the govenor’s actions but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he will be up for election next year,” Cobb-Hunter said. “But we’ve had enough politics when it comes to roads, but what we need now is for men and women who are here, people need us to do our jobs.

Republican House Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, authored the House roads bill that is currently in the Senate. He said the move wasn’t a political tactic, rather the governor working with the legislature to find a funding compromise other than raising vehicle registration fees and the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over the next six years.

“I think the governor truly wants a solution,” Simrill said. “He is looking within his wheelhouse and what he sees is the best move forward for South Carolina, understanding this is a process. This is the legislature working with the executive branch to come up with a solution. I welcome the solution he has, and we will work through it as a General Assembly.”

McMaster spoke with reporters at the Governor’s Mansion Tuesday following an event with NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., promoting Darlington Raceway’s upcoming Labor Day weekend race.

“I have studied this question, I have analyzed it, and I’m confident that there is a better way,” McMaster said. “I have spoken to a number of senators and House members from the very beginning, telling them this is where we are going.”

During that press gaggle, Catherine Templeton became the third Republican to announce her 2018 gubernatorial bid. Campaign disclosures show the former director of the Dept. of Health and Environmental Control has raised $700,000, so far, for her run.

The Senate signaled Thursday that they will begin debate on the roads bill when they return from recess on April 18.


Ports Authority Board Movement

There were no new developments in the ongoing State House corruption investigation this week.

McMaster’s two candidates for the State Ports Authority board moved forward in the confirmation process. They were approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday and now await confirmation by the Senate.

Kenneth Jackson's and William Jones' appointments were delayed by a legislative vetting panel, after news reports tied their businesses to the political consultant group that’s been involved in the State House investigation—Richard Quinn & Associates.

“We reviewed the testimony and found it consistent with what the record was, and that the relationships with Richard Quinn and Associates was several layers removed,” Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms said. “So these individuals did not have any direct ties to Richard Quinn and Associates.”


Opioid Bills

Several bills were passed by the House dealing with opioids this week, including one requiring mandatory prescriber reporting to DHEC of all painkillers. Rep. Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville, is part of a group of House lawmakers that introduced a slate of 10 bills earlier in session, to address the growing problem that claimed close to 600 lives in 2015.

“No debate, no discussion, no questions, (the) overwhelming unanimous vote is clear to me that people realize it’s a problem and are willing to put reasonable things in place to help fight prescription drug abuse in South Carolina,” Henderson said about the mandatory reporting bill.

Henderson noted that several other bills have been introduced and will likely see quick action next year.

A Good Samaritan law authored by Sen. Greg Hembree, R-N. Myrtle Beach, moved out of the Senate on crossover day Thursday. The bill grants limited immunity to drug or underage alcohol users who report overdoses to authorities.

Children’s advocates were in the State House this week to bring attention to the need to continue combating child abuse, child exploitation and human trafficking.

S.C. Dept. of Social Services director Susan Alford said despite past hurdles, the agency continues to work to protect vulnerable children.

“Last year, the S.C. Department of Social Services processed more than 53,000 intake decisions that resulted in 18,398 children that were the subject of founded investigations of child maltreatment in the state. I can tell you these numbers are sobering and daunting, but we have to remember the statistics are more than numbers.”

Attorney General Alan Wilson said a robust Internet crimes against children task force has brought many offenders to justice, but human trafficking remains a problem, though lawmakers have acted to crack down on it.

Next week the House and Senate are on spring recess and will return to Columbia on April 18. After that, there will only be 12 more legislative days left until sine die, the last day of session, May 11.

If bills don’t get sent to the governor by May 11, they will be carried over until the next legislative session, which begins in January.