South Carolina lawmakers seek education changes; have extra $1B to spend
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) —
The 2019 legislative session in South Carolina will start with a promise to overhaul the education system in South Carolina and about an extra $1 billion to spend.
It will also start with new faces leading key committees in the House and new rules in the Senate that leaders think will help maintain the uniqueness of the body whose roots go back 300 years to the South Carolina Royal Council while making the modern chamber run more efficiently.
The 123rd session of the South Carolina General Assembly begins at noon Tuesday and is scheduled for 18 weeks. Already, about 450 bills have been filed in the House and 300 in the Senate as the two-year session begins.
Here are the big issues and the big changes as the 105 Republicans and 63 Democrats (with two vacancies) return to Columbia.
Hovering over all the Legislature's actions this year is an extra $1 billion in the state's accounts that lawmakers can spend.
That extra money will drive many decisions, from whether to give teachers and other state employees raises to improving neglected items like equipment for law enforcement or how to restructure the state's income, property, and sales tax systems.
Gov. Henry McMaster wants to cut income taxes and stop taxing military retirement payments, his spokesman Brian Symmes said.
He will likely find allies in the Legislature's most conservative members.
"Just because you collect it doesn't mean you have to spend it," said Republican Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort who has championed tax cuts and reform during his decade in Columbia.
House Speaker Jay Lucas surprised many last month when he said education would be his top legislative priority this year.
Lucas' efforts, combined with an ambitious project by The Post and Courier newspaper has lawmakers promising to do something to improve South Carolina schools. Teachers are loosely organizing too and promise more pressure if lawmakers don't act.
Lucas has yet to provide specifics. Other Republican House leaders say bills will be introduced next week with details. McMaster's spokesman said the governor also thinks education needs to be a top priority.
If the debate that finally led to an increased gas tax to improved roads is any indication, it may take years to build consensus, especially if spending additional money is involved.
Republicans have started to suggest the problems are more in how money is spent. Democrats said if lawmakers take a wholesale look at education, they need to include increasing poverty in rural areas and how school systems with poorer and minority students have always lagged behind.
"If we can't agree on the facts, how are we going to solve the problem?" said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat from Orangeburg who at 27 years is now the House's longest serving member.
The easiest, quickest education bill might be a pay raise for teachers, although a Republican from Horry County wants to take it a step further. Sen. Greg Hembree wants to pass a bill giving a 10 percent raise over three years to all state employees who make less than $100,000 a year.
Dealing with the fallout of the multibillion-dollar failure of the construction of two nuclear reactors dominated the 2018 legislative session. And lawmakers only dealt with what will likely be the simpler half of the problem.
After cutting private utility South Carolina Electric & Gas rates, clearing the way for its parent company Scana Corp. to be bought out and passing changes to regulatory structure, lawmakers can turn toward state-owned Santee Cooper, which owned 45 percent of the doomed project and is now around $9 billion in debt.
The governor wants to sell Santee Cooper — for a fair price. But some lawmakers likely feel a nostalgic tie to the Great Depression era utility and its role in 85 years of economic development. Power rates for Santee Cooper customers are likely going up significantly, and there is no guarantee there will be a buyer or an acceptable offer.
"Scana is the most difficult thing I've dealt with," Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield said of his 12 years in the Legislature. "Santee Cooper is more difficult."
NEW COMMITTEE LEADERS
Two of the most influential House committees have new faces.
The surprise new leader is Rep. Murrell Smith taking over the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. Speaker Lucas knocked Rep. Brian White off the committee after eight years as its leader. White said Lucas told him Republican leaders wanted a chairman who would better promote the party's agenda.
"My cellphone's voice mail is full for the first time," Smith said of his new popularity.
The House Judiciary Committee also has a new chairman. Republican Rep. Peter McCoy of Charleston, in just his eighth year in the House, takes over.
A change in the state constitution means a big change in Senate rules. The lieutenant governor no longer presides over the state Senate.
Senators will pass new rules Tuesday. Massey said they will likely approve a senator to be president of the body, and that senator cannot be chairman of a committee in a bid to keep one lawmaker from having too much power.
Lawmakers expect a better relationship with Gov. McMaster, who was elected to a full term last November after finishing the final two years of Gov. Nikki Haley's term after she became U.N. ambassador.
Last year, McMaster worried about a Republican primary challenge. This year, he is free to fashion his agenda without that kind of political pressure.
Both Democrats and Republicans praised him as someone who puts South Carolina before his own ambitions and listens — traits they have said weren't as evident in the last 16 years under the past two Republican governors.
"He loves South Carolina more than he loves himself," said Republican House Majority Leader Gary Simrill of Rock Hill.
McMaster can separate his own feelings from what is best for South Carolina, his spokesman Symmes said.
"The governor doesn't take any disagreements personally," Symmes said.