Originally created 06/04/99

Legislators stumble on gaming, budget

COLUMBIA -- After a five-month session often marred by partisan one-upmanship, South Carolina lawmakers went home Thursday without agreeing on controls for the video poker industry and without a state budget for fiscal year 2000, which begins less than a month from now.

The Senate passed a $6 billion compromise budget that conferees from both chambers stayed up all night to finish.

But the Republican-controlled House refused to consider the spending plan that gives Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges much of what he wanted for education.

Clearwater Democrat Tommy Moore, who has led a conference committee to come to terms with highly divergent bills on video poker, said the conferees are deadlocked on critical issues, including when voters get their say on the controversial issue and how much players should be allowed to win.

The House had included a 15 percent tax on gambling revenues in its version of the state budget, but Mr. Moore said House conferees have insisted that the video poker bill impose double that tax because senators on the committee agreed to 15.

Thursday's impasses mean the Legislature still will have the budget and video poker to deal with on June 22 when it returns for what is supposed to be a loose-ends day. Lawmakers always return briefly to consider vetoes or other leftover matters.

This is the second-straight year that weighty matters such as the state budget, which goes into effect July 1, will be included.

Hanging in the balance are $71.6 million in pay raises for state employees and teachers, $51.7 million in initiatives for public education, and $67 million for colleges and universities around the state.

Other issues to be decided when lawmakers return are a ban on casino boats; bills on boating safety; salt-water fisheries; alternative schools; magistrate court reforms; and the telecommunications franchises that cities, including Aiken and North Augusta, say will cost them thousands of dollars if reduced.

With so much left undecided on the final day of this session, the lobby between House and Senate packed with people waiting for votes on "their" issues. Political old-timers said it looked more like an opening day than a closing.

The crowd watched TV monitors to keep tabs on proceedings in the House and the Senate, a chaotic system when both chambers simultaneously discussed at length the conference committee's failure so far to wrestle the video poker bear to the ground.

In the House, Republican conferee Terry Haskins of Greenville explained the committee's impasse, saying there were some issues that the House could not concede.

Senators heard it from Mr. Moore, who had a different perspective. He said that Senate conferees had made all the concessions and House members had made none.

Despite the business left to be handled, Mr. Hodges -- who won the governor's office with a pledge to improve education in South Carolina -- declared the session historic for education.

He claimed several victories in his first year with a Legislature that has dealt with Republicans so long it hardly knows how to treat a Democrat in power.

He cited a bill that will allow voters to decide whether to have a lottery to help pay for education, a $1 billion bond bill for construction of new schools, and an agreement to fund his First Steps program for young children with $20 million, the amount he asked for.

"When the session began, I indicated that this would be a session in which would focus like a laser beam on improving South Carolina schools," the governor said. "We have fulfilled that promise."

Although Republicans fought hard against the school bond bill, preferring to take longer to build schools without borrowing money, House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, said he hesitated to call the expenditures for education victories for the Democratic governor.

"There is not one item on our 1999 education agenda that this Republican majority has not passed," he said. He listed as Republican priorities funding for altenative schools, summer schools, teacher salary increases, reductions in class size and school construction.

The House, he said, was committed to doing all those things while still responding to South Carolinians' clarion call for lower taxes.

"The South Carolina House is the only thing standing between citizens and higher taxes," he said. "It's apparent that we're going to have to vigorously fight this big-spending liberal agenda for the next few years."

Senate Majority Leader John Drummond, a Democrat who says he welcomed a two-party system in South Carolina, said he was disappointed that partisan politics hampered the Legislature this year.

In terms of bills proposed and bills passed, it was a disappointing session. Lawmakers dropped 2,100 bills into the hopper, making it impossible to consider them all. Matters that never got beyond committees included changes in how juries consider a death penalty and a bill that would take the Confederate battle flag off the Statehouse dome.

Video poker was the biggest bugaboo, partly because Mr. Hodges' gubernatorial campaign was heavily fueled with money from poker barons who wanted to defeat Republican incumbent David Beasley.

But while the Beasley administration concentrated on banning the industry rather than regulating it, Mr. Hodges has insisted on doing that -- even if it means calling lawmakers back to Columbia and keeping them here until Christmas.

Margaret N. O'Shea can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.


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