S.C. budget, other priority bills far from passage with week to go

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COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s legislative session is supposed to end this week, yet all the reform measures that legislators of both parties and chambers called top priorities in January remain undone, and there’s no budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The issues that angered voters in 2012 prompted lawmakers to promise they would restore the public’s trust by fixing them in 2013. This week will determine whether voters will have to wait until 2014 for reforms to ethics and election laws.

A bill that revamps the oversight of state agencies’ cyber-security is stuck in a House committee and nearly certain to carry over. Legislators insist key pieces of the plan will be handled through the 2013-14 budget, including the hiring of a statewide information security chief and the extension of taxpayers’ state-paid credit monitoring.

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said pledges to protect taxpayers’ personal data are being fulfilled without the legislation.

“While it would be great to have a bill and the fanfare of passing a comprehensive cyber-security bill this year – it would be beneficial politically – the truth is, we’re going to be dealing with cyber-security long-term and have bills to pass every year to keep up with the changes in technology,” said Bannister, R-Greenville.

Compromise work between the House and Senate budget plans should start this week, following three weeks of debate on the Senate floor over its spending plans. No one expects the legislative session to truly be over when the gavel falls Thursday.

Legislators hope to send the governor a bill fixing campaign filing laws to prevent another legal mess that booted 250 candidates from primary ballots last year. The Senate passed the bill in January, but it spent months in the House. Differences between the two plans are being hashed out in committee.
The Senate voted Thursday to put a measure aimed at strengthening state ethics laws on special order for this week, putting it at the top of the agenda and guaranteeing debate. Passage is another issue.

The bill seemed doomed for the year last Wednesday, when Democrats and tea-party-minded Republicans – the chamber’s self-proclaimed William Wallace Caucus – oddly joined forces to defeat the special status proposal. Democrats argued the process was being rushed. They note the bill didn’t pass the House until May 1 and its push to the Senate floor occurred in an eight-hour meeting that approached midnight.

“That was one of the most painful days of the year – to get a bill with some 60-odd amendments here for some discussion. Generally, do I want ethics reform? Yes, but the bill we have now is an absolute mess,” said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville. “By trying to force it, we’re promoting contentiousness that’s not needed.”

Meanwhile, the William Wallace Caucus insisted that a bill purporting to nullify the federal health care law should be the top priority. As passed by the House, the bill is largely symbolic, declaring South Carolina Republicans’ already well-documented opposition to the law, though it also provides a tax deduction to state taxpayers fined for not having health insurance.

Gov. Nikki Haley called on the Republicans to move on from the issue, noting they already defeated Democrats’ many attempts to put expanding Medicaid eligibility into the state budget.

“No state in America has stood stronger against the bill than South Carolina,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “The governor has also been very clear about her priorities this session – blocking Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, restructuring, and ethics reform. The first is done, and it is now time for the Senate to finish the other two.”

The Senate’s Republican leaders negotiated a deal to revive ethics reform, agreeing to put the anti-Obamacare law on special debate status, too, in return for the William Wallace Caucus voting to put ethics first.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said he would work with senators over the weekend in hopes of reaching consensus on ethics reform.

“It is entirely possible it could go fairly smoothly,” said Martin, R-Pickens, while acknowledging, “That may be overly optimistic.”

A renewed push for ethics reform began last year following the resignation of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who pleaded guilty to seven ethics violations, and ethics allegations against Haley, who was twice cleared by the House Ethics Committee. The resignation last week of former Sen. Robert Ford, amid allegations of multiple ethics violations over four years – in a case the Senate Ethics Committee sent to state law enforcement – added to the list.

“This is a real world example of why ethics reform is so important,” Godfrey said of Ford.

Martin said a vote on ethics would determine the session’s success.

“It could mean the difference of a much greater legislative session, versus just accomplishing basically what we had to accomplish,” he said.


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