Regular session ends with budget, pension not done

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COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Legislature’s regular session ended Thursday with the budget, pension reform and government restructuring still in limbo.

Bills not sent to the governor’s desk or assigned to a conference committee died when the gavel fell at 5 p.m., but measures that reached a panel of House and Senate members can be taken up in a special session starting June 19.

That includes the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The House and Senate have competing plans for $6.6 billion in state revenue.

Asked about the session’s accomplishments and disappointments, House Speaker Bobby Harrell said “it’s more about what’s left to do.” He’s encouraging conference committees for the three major bills to meet next week to try to compromise on the chambers’ differing versions.

Measures officially dead for the year include those cutting personal income taxes, removing sales tax exemptions and strengthening the state’s open records law.

Harrell said that while he wanted more of the House GOP Caucus’ tax-cutting package to pass, he knew it was a multi-year project. The one he deems most important, which helps small businesses, is close to passage. Both chambers’ budget proposals cut the income tax rate that small business owners pay on their profits. The Senate takes a multi-year approach, while the House cuts it from 5 percent to 3 percent immediately, reducing revenue by $65 million in 2012-13.

Though the tax cut is in both budget plans, the bill putting it in state law died in the Senate.

Rep. Bill Taylor said he plans to re-introduce a bill next year barring public agencies, governments and school districts from charging excessive fees for public records and requiring them to respond more quickly. He had hoped to prevent it from getting bogged down with a clause that removed legislators’ exemption from the law. While he agrees with the add-on, the bill will stand a much better chance in the Senate without it, he said.

The latest plan for helping parents afford private school tuition died, this time on the Senate floor, as Democrats blocked debate. The idea
received its first victory on the House floor earlier this year and made it out of the Senate committee process, though without recommendation and only so the full Senate could debate it. Various versions have died since 2004.

Legislative measures reaching the finish line this week include those hiring more judges, giving nonviolent offenders another chance, and providing a free vaccine to seventh-graders. One given final approval with only minutes to spare would automatically deny workers fired for misconduct from receiving any unemployment benefits. Currently, their benefits are reduced depending on the type of misconduct and severity.

A bill regulating when local governments can provide broadband services could be an exception for those that died when the clock struck 5. The Senate passed it in the waning minutes but didn’t get it back to the House before the deadline. Supermajority votes by both chambers could put it on the agenda of the special session.

Chief Justice Jean Toal
rejoiced over a bill adding nine judges statewide to relieve severe court backlogs. South Carolina’s judges have long had the highest caseloads in the country, with more than 5,000 cases per trial judge.

Toal has cited a critical need to legislators since taking the judicial system’s helm in 2000.

“I think it’s a major step forward to improving a very, very heavy backlog, particularly in family court matters,” she said Thursday. “I think they finally get it, how negative it is.”

Toal, who served 13 years in the House, said custody and visitation issues can hang for several years: “These are families in terrible distress, sometimes overlain by issues of domestic violence and turbulence. These things need rapid attention.”

Legislators who are attorneys confirm the judicial backlog is delaying routine hearings for months and the resolution of cases for years, whether for criminal prosecution or family adoptions.

Both chambers’ budget proposals include money for more judges. The House one-upped the Senate by including money for 12 judges, rather than nine, but that’s more than the proposed law allows.

A bill approved in the final hours would allow nonviolent felonies to be erased from the records of now-upstanding citizens. Sponsoring Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said too many residents can’t find work because employers won’t hire those with a criminal record, no matter how old the crime.

“Hopefully, it will chip away at the class of people who are unemployable,” he said.

The state already allows people convicted of a misdemeanor to have the charge expunged. The bill is meant to provide a path for those convicted of low-level felonies, such as shoplifting and non-trafficking drug charges.

Only ex-cons who have received a pardon from the state pardon and parole board could apply for their records to be cleared. And the bill allows only one such do-over. The request would be denied if a victim or officer objects.

Under a bill given final approval Wednesday, seventh-grade students could get a free vaccine to prevent a sexually transmitted, cancer-causing virus. The measure makes it an option, not a mandate. Informational brochures on the vaccine for human papillomavirus, known as HPV, would be provided to parents of sixth-graders.

The Legislature will return for a special session starting June 19 to deal with bills that reached a panel of House and Senate members, who will try to agree to compromise on their competing versions.


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