Originally created 01/08/01

Split Legislature takes on issues

South Carolina lawmakers will return Tuesday for a new legislative session that was set to be a challenge even before a sudden shift last week in the Senate's delicate balance of power.

With Democrats' dominion broken for the first time since 1876, Republicans control both chambers and can control what happens to the critical issues pending.

There's a $513 million gap between projected revenues and the money actually trickling into state coffers, making cutbacks certain and layoffs only a little less likely. There are conflicting views on how a new state lottery should be structured. And with South Carolina's population reaching 4 million in the latest census, it's time to redraw voting districts - lines the GOP majority can use to entrench their power for a decade and make life tough for Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges in the interim.

He faces opposition, some from his own party, to his plan to spend lottery proceeds mostly for higher education instead of early grades in which learning patterns are set. And Republicans derided Mr. Hodges' solutions to the budget crisis when he offered them Thursday.

On that day, too, the balance of power shifted more solidly to the GOP as a Greenville Democrat, Verne Smith, switched parties, ending the Senate's 23-23 split. The fall elections that produced the potential for partisan gridlock also gave Republicans a 69-54 edge in the House.

At least one political analyst, Blease Graham of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, says more Democrats could switch to what looks to be the power party in a reapportionment year. Some could do it to retain powerful committee chairmanships if the GOP Senate majority ends the seniority system for awarding those plums.

West Columbia Democrat Nikki Setzler, whose district includes four Aiken County precincts, could lose chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee. And Aiken Democrat Tommy Moore could lose chairmanship of Medical Affairs. Mr. Setzler has been in the Senate since 1977 and Mr. Moore since 1981.

Resident Aiken County senators viewed the power shift through party prisms Friday. Republican Sen. Greg Ryberg said he's confident Republicans "will not leave the minority party out in the cold like we were" but "want to work in a bipartisan fashion."

The power shift, he said, "ensures a bipartisan approach to solutions that will move South Carolina government forward."

Mr. Smith's party switch averted a behind-the-scenes effort to tip the scales to Democrats in the Senate, Mr. Ryberg said - which possibly prompted Tuesday's refusal to seat Florence Republican Hugh Leatherman while his election is being contested in court. That, Mr. Ryberg said, "was the straw that broke Republicans' backs" and led them to court conservative Democrats.

Democrats say the only plan was to let the court decide.

Mr. Moore, the Democrat who has a reputation for brokering compromises and building consensus, said he is hopeful, but skeptical, the Senate can continue a tradition of sharing power, which the seniority system has encouraged.

"I think the message of the last election was that the electorate is tired of partisan politics, and hopefully, they have elected people who can rise about it," he said. "But there are presently 14 committee chairmen - six Republicans and eight Democrats - and that's as close to bipartisan as you can get without cutting straight down the middle. They are talking about making them all Republicans, and I don't see how you can call that bipartisan by any stretch of the imagination."

Members of the Aiken delegation agree lawmakers will have full plates without piling more on. That means friends and foes of the Confederate flag are not likely to get out of committee any bill to put it back on the Capitol dome or to move it off the Statehouse grounds, said Wagener Republican Rep. Charles R. Sharpe, an avid flag supporter.

Three key issues are expected to dominate this year's session:

Lottery nuts and bolts: Now that voters have said they want an education lottery, lawmakers must decide how a lottery will be run and where the proceeds will go. That's not as simple as it sounds. Mr. Hodges' plan for the money was released before the referendum, and now he says it was a mandate for his ideas, including free technical education and college scholarships.

But many lawmakers, including those on the Aiken delegation, would shore up lower grades, where lifelong learning patterns are set.

Among lottery proposals, Aiken Democratic Rep. Bill Clyburn is offering a bill that would let winners donate to the public schools of their choice the amount they'd otherwise pay in state taxes.

The budget crunch: With revenues far below projections, lawmakers must decide whether some state employees will lose their jobs. The governor has called for a 15 percent cut in state agencies' budgets. But school accountability and other 1998 reforms fall due this year. The cost of helping underperforming schools: $625,000 apiece.

Though the state might have borrowed its limit, the governor is willing to borrow more. State Treasurer Grady Patterson says that can't happen.

Reapportionment: Lawmakers have until early 2002 to finish redrawing districts in time for elections that fall. But reapportionment is always painful. In 1990, the Legislature's redistricting wound up in federal court amid charges that racial motives controlled the boundaries. A three-judge panel redrew the districts.

This year, lawmakers are working with census figures that show South Carolina's population shrinking in rural areas that have traditionally favored Democrats while urban areas that lean Republican are growing. Redrawing district lines can change which party is likely to win in some areas.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.


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