Bills to watch in 2020: Part two

It’s a new year in the Palmetto State, and that means South Carolina’s legislative session is about to begin – on January 14 to be exact.

While it’s impossible to predict every desired policy change on lawmakers’ agenda, the primary takeaways from the 250-plus bills prefiled for this year include more spending of taxpayer dollars, more regulation and less freedom, and no intent to truly reform state government.  

Of course, as 2020 is the second half of the two-year session, last year’s bills are still in play as well. Click here for an overview of some of the most significant of those bills.

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Spending

Instead of reducing spending, lawmakers pre-filed bills to create new funds, divert taxpayer dollars to pet projects, and even pay stipends to part-time government officials.   

One such bill is H.4819, which would pay members of the Union County Transportation Commission $75 per meeting for up to 10 meetings per year. Worse, these stipends would be paid from their “C” fund revenues, a portion of gas-tax dollars given to local governments to fund road repair, bridge projects, and highway construction and maintenance. H.4723 would increase poll workers’ pay to $15 per hour during training and election day work.

S.869 would increase funding for a beach preservation trust fund (designed to increase access to and restore public beaches), and would require that the trust fund be administered by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism rather than the Department of Health and Environmental Control. H.4778 would create a new trust fund to finance grants for select nonprofits to provide counseling services to those struggling with opioid addiction.

Two bills would adjust hospitality tax revenue: H.4745 would allow local governments to divert those funds to interstate projects, while H.4674 would add flooding and drainage control to the statutory list of allowed expenditures. Then there’s S.929, which directs settlements awarded during opioid litigation to the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. A small part would also go to fund research into the impact of medical cannabis on opioid addiction and recovery.

There’s a handful of new spending mandates, too. This bill says that every state welcome center and rest area must be equipped with a charging station for electric vehicles. Another would require the state to offer a clean needle and disposal program to drug abusers. H.4784, meanwhile, states that every public building owned by the state must supply feminine hygiene products in public women’s restrooms. 

Another two bills (H.4677 & H.4676) would allow retired public employees and police officers to return to work and earn up to $20,000 and $40,000 respectively, without affecting their retirement benefits. Meanwhile, some judges could draw from their pension while earning a salary for an extra five years under S.921. H.4777 would make first responders suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder eligible for workers’ compensation, if it arose during the course of their job. 

Finally, S.931 would require the legislature to adopt a biennial state budget (lasting two years instead of one). Much like switching to a biennial legislative session, this policy would lessen the time lawmakers spend with lobbyists representing special interests, as well as introducing the fiscal restraint necessary when budgeting for two years. The bill, however, would also allow lawmakers to pass a supplemental budget each year, a loophole that undercuts its very purpose. 

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Education

Not only is education policy one of the most active categories of this year’s pre-filed legislation, it also was a major topic during the 2019 session, with both the House and Senate filing similar bills to overhaul the education system (only the House version passed its respective chamber).  In fact, a number of the pre-filed bills are policies either pulled from or inspired by those omnibus bills. 

One of those bills is H.4761, which requires reading coaches to have a bachelor’s degree, allows for the creation of up to five new tests for use in kindergarten through third grade, and subjects incoming childhood and special education teachers to a new “rigorous test.” Another bill (H.4753) establishes a teacher bill of rights, mandates a 30-minute planning period for teachers, and creates a tax credit for teachers living in low-income counties. H.4754 would allow school districts to create multiple “schools of innovation” that could be exempt from specifically chosen laws or regulations, if approved. Finally, H.4756 would require local school boards to adopt codes of ethics and anti-nepotism policies, would require members to comply with existing state ethics laws (which they are already subject to), and would allow the governor to remove members for things such as fraud, nepotism, and misappropriation of funds. 

A number of bills also target teacher pay or offer financial aid. H.4780 would require local school boards to increase teacher pay by a whopping 20%, setting their minimum salary at $42,000 (teachers also received a raise in the budget passed last summer) without providing any additional funding to cover the mandate. S.930 would add additional raises for teachers who reach the 20 and 30 year mark. Another bill would provide students with an education major and who received a LIFE scholarship with a $7,500 stipend upon graduation. 

Other pre-filed bills are aimed more towards student life, such as H.4759, which requires the Department of Education to start planning for how to provide wifi in every public school, or this bill that would prohibit schools and school districts from attempting to collect lunch debts or from charging late fees. Another bill, H.4665, demonstrates how well-intended legislation does not always equal good policy. It would require the installation of metal detectors at every public entrance of elementary, middle, and high schools, plus public colleges and universities (costing roughly $14 million for the equipment alone). 

One bill with major implications for higher education is S.935, which protects the rights of student athletes to profit off of their likenesses (such as through private sponsorships or brand deals). However, the bill would also inject state dollars into the mix by allowing high-grossing universities to pay student athletes stipends funded by the school’s sports revenue. 

Meanwhile, two other proposals would prohibit colleges from charging application fees for in-state students, and ostensibly strengthen free speech protections for student groups and invited speakers. 

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Gun rights

As per usual, a handful of pre-filed bills target Second Amendment rights. 

The most alarming is H.4682, which bans outright the possession of “assault weapons,” defined so loosely that anything from a semi-automatic shotgun to a collection of gun parts could be deemed illegal. A person who violates this section could face up to 10 years in prison. The bill also increases penalties for existing crimes, such as the unlawful sale and possession of firearms. Meanwhile, H.4697 would raise the necessary age to purchase an assault rifle (which employs a similarly poor definition). 

This bill would require that every gun manufactured in the state be equipped with an electronic chip that identifies its owner – technology that would immediately raise firearm prices and put owners at risk in the case of a malfunction (not to mention the privacy implications). 

In response to the City of Columbia ordinance banning so-called “ghost guns” (homemade firearms created without a serial number), one lawmaker pre-filed a bill expanding the state’s preemption statute to explicitly prohibit local governments from passing such laws. It should be noted, however, that the ordinance appears to already violate current law.

Finally, H.4686 would expand the justifiable self-defense measures for individuals facing immediate harm, such as during a home invasion or carjacking. In addition to using deadly force (already permitted by law) this bill would permit the display of force as a lawful option. A person doing so in accordance with the law would have immunity from criminal and civil action. 

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Energy

A number of pre-filed bills would make various regulatory changes to the energy and utility industry, but none of them would dissolve the energy monopoly which prevents customers from choosing their own utility companies. Nor is there any pre-filed legislation dissolving lawmakers’ concentrated power over utility regulation. The only bills that address the regulatory structure would simply extend the one-year cooling-off period required before Public Service Commissioners can go to work for utilities to three years (H.4776) and four years (S.947) respectively.

One of the most concerning energy bills is H.4810, which allows local governments to issue revenue bonds to finance energy improvements for private commercial property, in exchange for mortgages on those properties until the improvements are paid off. 

H.4738 would prohibit utilities (or companies contracted by utilities) from charging fees for collecting payments, and S.904 would prohibit utilities from sharing customer information with third parties without the consent of the customer. S.922 states that independently owned electric vehicle charging stations are not electric utilities (subject to all the accompanying regulation) if they are purchasing the electricity supplied rather than generating it. The bill also prohibits utilities from considering increased transportation-related energy demand to be revenue. S.907 requires the Public Service Commission (PSC) to revisit gas rates every five years, even if established under Natural Gas Rate Stabilization Act (which freezes rate design for natural gas rates). H.4730 would require wind energy facilities to be certified as public utilities by the PSC, and to undergo review by the Department of Defense to ensure that the facility would not interfere with military operations.

Finally, S.923 would require water and sewer utilities to submit integrated resource plans to the PSC for approval every three years, while S.924 prohibits water or sewer utilities from collecting returns for periods where their services lapsed due to a failure to plan adequately, allows the PSC to modify rates in cases of “egregious circumstances by the utility” and requires the PSC to consider a history of service failure when determining rates. 

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Reform and restructuring

Lawmakers pre-filed several judicial  “reform” bills this year, three of which would simply tweak the Senatorial magistrate selection process, and one which would actually reform a big part of the judicial system. Under S.903, magistrates would be nominated and confirmed by their county legislative delegations (which includes lawmakers from both chambers) instead of merely county Senate delegations (which sometimes consists of only one Senator). This bill would also prohibit sitting lawmakers (and their families) from becoming magistrates until two years after leaving office, and would entitle defendants to new trials if sentenced to imprisonment by non-attorney magistrates.

S.905 would prohibit magistrates from holding over once their terms have expired and would allow the governor to appoint interim magistrates should the Senate not nominate or confirm a replacement. However, nothing in the bill prohibits the sitting magistrate from being chosen as the interim until the Senate acts, which would essentially constitute holdover status as allowed under current law. S.913 would prohibit Senators from practicing law before the magistrates in the counties they represent. As lawmakers would still control the selection of magistrates under all three of these bills, however, none of them would enact true judicial reform by restoring judicial independence. 

S. 925, however, is a straightforward constitutional amendment making Supreme Court, Circuit Court and Court of Appeals judges appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, as well as eliminating the legislatively controlled Judicial Merit Selection Commission. This bill would effectively eliminate the legislature’s undue control over the high courts and go a long way to restore effective checks and balances between the judiciary and the other two branches of government.

Companion bills H.4752 and S.878 would reduce the size of the University of South Carolina board of trustees from 20 to 12, and would remove the governor from serving as de facto chairman. Another pair of bills, S.944 and S.945, would enact legislative term limits, and yet another pair of bills would restrict the practice of naming roads and public buildings. S.893 would prohibit lawmakers from naming roads after public officials until five years after their death, while S.953 would prohibit the naming of roads and public buildings after anyone still living, whether public official or private citizen.

H.4796 would combine two state agencies (the Department of Public Safety and the State Law Enforcement Division) into one. S.952 would give the Legislative Audit Council subpoena power over and almost unlimited access to state agencies and their data. This access would extend to private organizations which receive public funds, as far as their receipt and spending of public funds is concerned. S.952 would require candidates to continue filing campaign statements or statements of inactivity until all debts are paid and their campaign accounts close. 

A pair of joint resolutions (S.901 & S.918) would ratify a 1972 amendment (known as the “Equal Rights Amendment”) to the United States Constitution, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. 

Finally, H.4731 would require that local planning commissions include a “resiliency element” in their comprehensive plan. This element includes factors such as resilience to natural disasters, rising water levels, damage to infrastructure, and impacts on economic development. 

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Taxes and tax favors

By far the great majority of tax-related bills pre-filed this year would create or expand tax favors for various favored classes, products or industries. The South Carolina tax code is already riddled with targeted tax credits and incentives, which is one of the primary things keeping tax rates high. The more exemptions lawmakers give, the more they must collect from everyone else. 

S.897, for example, would exempt anyone under the age of 30 from paying income taxes, while H.4786 would exempt the sale of gold, silver and platinum bullion from the capital gains tax. S.939 would give companies a 20% sales tax credit and an income tax credit equal to 20% of employee withholdings for investing at least $250,000 in retail facilities, while S.909 would make businesses eligible for job development credits even if they use staff leasing companies instead of actually hiring new employees directly. H.4679 would create tax credits for investing in mall rehabilitation, while S.879 would increase available tax credits for investing in community development corporations/financial institutions.

A pair of companion bills – S.883 and H.4702 – would allow the Richland-Lexington Airport Commission to apply to the federal government to set up foreign-trade zones (essentially free-trade zones where duty or excise taxes – and often state and local property taxes – do not apply) in numerous midlands counties. 

A handful of bills would result in tax increases. Companion bills S.884 and H.4783 would allow county governments to suspend the statutory property tax cap order to fund county fire departments, while S.948 would remove the tax cap on rail carriers. Conversely, S.910 would increase the senior citizen property tax homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000, while H.4818 would completely exempt individuals over the age of 70 from paying property tax on their primary residences. 

Two bills (H.4717 and S.943) would exempt feminine hygiene products from state and local sales taxes, while H.4779 would create a refundable income tax credit (capped at $500) to reimburse teachers who purchase school supplies. Finally, S.876 would create a tax credit of up to $10,000 for individuals (or their dependents) who donate organs.

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Criminal and civil law

The legislature prefiled a number of criminal and civil law bills covering topics including hate crimes, rules of evidence, drugs, firearms, and how the state interacts with minors.

Two significant hate crime bills were pre-filed; the first bill S.934, would make it a felony to threaten harm against someone based on their race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin, carrying a potential 10-year prison sentence. Bizarrely, the bill holds actual violence against such groups to the same criminal standard (maximum 10-year sentence), but that penalty would increase under aggravating circumstances like kidnapping, sexual assault or murder. 

The other bill (H.4680) creates additional penalties including fines, longer sentencing, and civil liability for a lengthy list of crimes spanning from violent crimes to property destruction if they are motivated due to the victim’s perceived race, color, creed, religion, gender, age, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability.

A number of bills would amend civil and criminal rules of evidence. H.4709 bans law enforcement from using or installing biometric data (digital identification technology) into a used surveillance system (like a body cam), while H.4695 loosens restrictions on the list of people who may request and must receive police body camera footage, and states the footage can be released to a third party without legal restrictions. Another evidence-focused bill (H.4817) would apply search-and-seizure protection to electronic data, much like physical property. Predictably, there are a number of exceptions and loopholes allowing for warrantless search, such as criminal evidence inadvertently found by a remote computing service. H.4685 would empower the state to subpoena witnesses to testify on its behalf during criminal proceedings through “compulsory process” – a constitutional right established for defendants and intended to level the playing field against the state’s overwhelming legal resources. 

Two bills aim at decreasing the severity of state drug laws. The first, H.4687 reduces maximum sentences for many drug violations, softens penalties for repeat offenses, and raises the threshold needed for a trafficking charge. H.4803 removes the possibility of jail time or arrest for anyone caught with less than one ounce of marijuana, replacing those penalties with a $100 citation. 

Bills increasing penalties for firearms offenses include H.4683, which increases the penalty for unlawfully carrying a handgun in a second or subsequent offense to a maximum of $2,000 fine and/or five years of imprisonment. H.4684 would mandate a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for shooting a firearm into an area regularly occupied by people (such as a school, church, movie theater, or parking lot). Finally, H.4706 would add an additional 10-year sentence for each bullet fired in a shooting that results in someone’s death. 

Bills related to minors and their interactions with the judicial system were pre-filed on a variety of subjects. First, H.4807 would require law enforcement to inform minors of their rights prior to questioning, and any resulting confession made without that child’s parent, attorney or guardian present would be considered inadmissible. Second, H.4719 would require that at least one  pre-arrest diversion program be created in each judicial circuit for juveniles who have committed nonviolent crimes. The Department of Juvenile Justice, through a fund created under the bill, would be in charge of awarding funding to the programs. It also would raise the minimum age that a minor can be charged as an adult to 16.  Finally, H.4672 would allow a judge to order the retroactive payment of child support in certain circumstances, such as if a father knowingly and willfully refused to provide support for his child in the past. 

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Medical

Legislators have pre-filed a series of medical bills this year largely revolving around safety in medical facilities, the opioid crisis, and a few notable outliers. One standout is H.4720, which would create a sprawling multi-state government apparatus that exists to buy the rights and ownership of new cures created by the medical industry. The bill places no parameters on how buyouts would be funded, going so far as to allow member states to issue taxpayer-backed general obligation bonds.  After the acquisition, the entity would be in charge of distributing the cure and collecting “royalties” for its sale, allowing substantial discretion to the largely self-regulating commission on the distribution and revenue created by the cure. 

Two of the bills focus on security for medical institutions: H.4802 requires that hospitals and free-standing emergency service buildings be equipped with security cameras at patient drop-off points, at the facility’s own cost. Another security bill, H.4713 mandates that physicians’ offices in a location outside of a hospital and DHEC-licensed physician practices conduct an annual risk assessment in collaboration with local law enforcement to identify and remedy potential threats to staff and patients. Physicians which refused to do so would be fined $1,000 for a first offense and $5,000 for each subsequent offense, and DHEC-licensed locations may get their license revoked for non-compliance.

A couple of bills were pre-filed in response to the opioid crisis. The first is S.936, which orders the Department of Health and Environmental Control to create a program allowing the disposal of needles used for drugs and providing sterile needles and educational materials on drug use and risk. H.4711 requires that when doctors prescribe opioids when certain risk factors (such as a history of drug use or high doses of prescribed opioids) are present, they must offer a prescription for an overdose reversal drug.

H.4712 requires hospitals and medical centers that provide prenatal care to give “implicit bias training” to their staff, described as targeting potential prejudice or negative feelings unknowingly held against groups of people. After the initial training, a refresher course would be required once per year indefinitely to keep up with “changing racial, identity and cultural trends.”

Finally, H.4663 allows pharmacists to administer a flu vaccine to children under the age of 12 without a written order from a doctor, expanding the ability of pharmacists to administer the flu shot to any patient.

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Regulation 

Every legislative session sees the introduction of new occupational licensing and industry regulation bills. 

Perhaps the most egregious of these is H.4771, which would create a new licensing regime for mobile barbershops in the state (although barbers are already forced to undergo licensing by the South Carolina Board of Barber Examiners). H.4666 would require cosmetology practitioners to complete ongoing training in sanitation and other areas, and H.4772 would require background checks and fingerprint records for physical therapists and their assistants. 

There are also a handful of pre-filed bills that specifically target the tobacco and vaping industries. A pair of bills (S.872 & H.4798) would require tobacco and vapor product sellers to acquire a new $300 license, and would increase the penalties for selling to a minor. Additionally, the bill would require the state to conduct compliance checks by soliciting minors to attempt to purchase products while underage. H.4808 would impose an outright ban on the sale of vapor products in South Carolina, H.4717 would impose new taxes on tobacco and vape products, and H.4715 would make it unlawful to sell vapor products containing THC (the psychoactive component in marijuana). 

At least one bill (H.4670)  would require a number of medical professions to obtain pricey liability insurance, another (S.896) would require training related to mental health for law enforcement and emergency medical technicians, and this bill (S.886) would remove the certification mandate for speech-language pathologists providing special education services. 

H.4806 would allow banks to place a freeze on accounts they suspect are involved in the “exploitation of vulnerable adults.” This could include the personal account of a suspected exploited person, an account that person is a beneficiary of, plus the account of a person believed to be engaged in such exploitation. Bank records could also be given to law enforcement. H.4812 would regulate the use of biometric data (digital identification technology) stating that companies that collect and/or sell biometric data must disclose what data they are taking if asked, and allow customers to opt-out of the collection or sale of their data.

H.4727 regulates the size and placement of political campaign signs in the right of way of the state highway system and increases the fine to $300 for removal or vandalism of the signs. 

Finally, S.870 would prohibit offshore drilling (fracking), and S.912 would impound a driver’s vehicle if they fail to provide proof of insurance (plus a $350 fine). 

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Lawmakers will continue to file bills throughout the session, but legislative priorities – at least based on the 250-plus pre-filed bills – do not include government reform, ending legal corruption, wise spending of taxpayer dollars, or safeguarding liberties. Instead, these bills spend more, regulate more and take away more freedom than ever while maintaining the governmental structure which concentrates power in the hands of unaccountable legislative leaders. 

We will analyze a number of these bills more closely in the days to come, and will keep readers posted on their status in the legislative process.


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