COLUMBIA, S.C. – Ahead of the start of the 2016 legislative session next week, lawmakers and budget experts from across the state met with South Carolina news reporters to preview topics expected to arise in the coming year.
Funding for transportation infrastructure improvements, ethics reform and education remain top issues. In the last session the House passed an infrastructure funding bill and more than a dozen ethics bills, with no response from the Senate.
Current budget projections show legislators will have more than $7.6 billion in net general fund revenues to work with this year, with nearly $1.3 billion in unobligated funds.
At the start of the session South Carolina’s Senate is under special order to take up debate on infrastructure funding. The tone among lawmakers remains optimistic that a comprehensive bill will pass.
Tom Davis, a Republican senator from Beaufort who blocked a road repair proposal during a three-week filibuster last year, said he expects a comprehensive funding plan to pass sometime in February.
However, debate over a gas tax and Department of Transportation restructuring will be a contentious topic.
“They (Senate Finance Committee) wanted to dump $750 million into the very same system that has demonstrated its inability to address our needs, despite a 90 percent increase in funding over seven years,” Davis said. “I think in order to get to any rational discussion about the gas tax you’ve got to correct the expenditure process, you’ve got to have to DOT accountable directly to the governor and you’ve got to rein those guys in.”
Horry County Republican Sen. Greg Hembree said a DOT restructuring isn’t necessarily the primary key to fixing South Carolina’s roads.
“We’ve been restructuring DOT for 45 years. This is not a new project for the General Assembly,” Hembree said. “We have a formula that’s been in place for a number of years now that prioritizes, with objective criteria, which roads need to be built. We need to follow the formula. It’s that simple. There are certainly areas that need to be restructured but I believe if the objective is to get politics out of the DOT. The way to do that is fully fund DOT with a revenue stream that we can’t mess with.”
The House passed 13 ethics bills last session and an omnibus bill that wrapped each of the smaller bills into a comprehensive package.
Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Lancaster Democrat, said the reasoning behind that model was to avoid a single component killing the entire movement after it hit the Senate floor.
“Those bills are well thought out and wonderfully packaged. We’ve been waiting patiently for those to be taken up and we hope that will happen,” Norrell said.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, a Pickens Republican, said the conversation on ethics reform seems to be on loop from sessions past. A component he wants pushed through is independent investigations of legislators, meaning inspection of lawmakers by individuals outside the General Assembly during an investigation.
“That, to me, is the lowest-hanging fruit on the ethical tree and something we ought to knock out easily,” Pope said. “Say I’ve been accused of something and there’s been an investigation by my peers. Even though I’ve done nothing wrong, that allows someone the opportunity to say, ‘Of course his peers didn’t find anything wrong.’ Why not let somebody outside of us do the investigation and let us move on?”
Sen. Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican, said the two biggest ethics hang-ups in the Senate are debates over anonymous donors’ disclosure of campaign funds and independent investigations.
“The most obvious is whether or not you ought to have independent investigations. I think it’s a no-brainer but not everybody listens to me,” Massey said.
Legislators spoke of an increased feeling of unity in the General Assembly after overwhelming displays of solidarity following the killing of nine black parishioners and the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds.
That unity, however, may not transfer into the 2016 legislative session.
Republicans call for greater tax relief, while Democrats want more stable ways to raise money to pay for infrastructure. Democrats want to expand health care, while Republicans want to find private solutions to the problem.
“This will be my ninth session and the Senate, to me, seems to be the most divided it’s ever been,” Massey said. “But I also think those divisions create great opportunities because it forces us to talk. A good bit of that has happened but a lot more will have to happen. Hopefully, we can get there to resolve some issues.”
The fact that 2016 is an election year has some lawmakers worried about inaction on critical legislation.
“It’s election year so I don’t think we get much done until after the filing closes,” said Orangeburg Sen. Brad Hutto. “I could be wrong about that but some people aren’t going to want to vote on the tax portions until they know whether they’ve got a vote or not.”
Orangeburg Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said her heart was warmed by the agreement on the Confederate flag, but “spinally challenged” legislators won’t take necessary risks during an election year.
“We don’t really do anything that is going to make anybody halfway mad at us,” Cobb-Hunter said.
A much discussed topic in South Carolina is mopeds and the dangers they pose to regular vehicles. Several legislators said bills are in the works to address those problems.
“The objective is to get a comprehensive bill out of subcommittee early in the session,” Hembree said. “The trick with moped legislation is finding that sweet spot. Most people don’t want to outlaw them outright but mostly we want to regulate them properly. Right now, it’s absolutely the Wild West.”
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford took time to call Gov. Nikki Haley out on her acceptance to give the GOP’s response to the State of the Union on Tuesday evening.
“It seems to me that we’re going to be auditioning our governor to be a vice presidential candidate for Donald Trump,” Rutherford said mockingly. “As we do so, I think we’re all going to have to be mindful not to do or say anything to displace her or cause any ideas that may knock her out from being candidate Trump’s running mate.”
Rutherford followed up his comment by asking Republican lawmakers to keep the entirety of South Carolina in mind when voting this session.
The 122nd South Carolina General Assembly convenes on Tuesday.
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