Wrap-Up of the 2017 Legislative Session
WHAT PASSED, WHAT DIDN’T, WHAT’S STILL TO COME
On May 11, the legislative session ended for this year. Lawmakers will return next week to finish and pass the budget and vote on gubernatorial vetoes, but legislators are otherwise finished.
Below is an overview of the important bills from the 2017 session. Some passed, some didn’t, and some will be picked up in January, this being the first of a two-year session. Any bills below that did not become law aren’t dead unless they were vetoed by the governor and sustained by the legislature.
Our criteria for assessing the bills remains the same. We judge legislation good or bad according to the degree to which it would make South Carolina the state with
● the most accountable and least powerful politicians.
● the most protected constitutional rights.
● the most opportunity to prosper.
● the most independence from debt and federal dependency.
● the most choice in education and health care
Electioneering/donor disclosure: DID NOT PASS
This bill (S.255), sponsored by Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), would substantially encroach on South Carolinians’ right to criticize politicians. It would require groups engaging in “election communication” – broadly defined as communication that supports or opposes a candidate, ballot initiative, or influences an election – to disclose not only their top donors but also the donors’ mailing address, occupation, and employer. Groups that aren’t currently required to disclose their donors, moreover, would face tougher reporting requirements at the state level than full-on political action committees that are directly involved in elections. Unlike other recent attempts to regulate free speech, which would have applied only in the run-up to an election (30 days before a primary election, 60 days before a general), Sen. Leatherman’s bill would apply all year round. The bill did not even receive a committee hearing this year, but lawmakers may well attempt to pass it next year.
Eliminating the Judicial Merit Selection Commission: DID NOT PASS
S.386 would have deleted language from the constitution that establishes a Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) to screen and nominate judicial candidates. Under current law, the Commission is entirely appointed by the legislature, which is a far cry from the independent judicial selection committee recommended by the American Bar Association. In any case, lawmakers shouldn’t simply pick the judges who interpret their laws, and the JMSC is a key component of the legislature’s hegemony over the judiciary.
Appointment of superintendent of education: DID NOT PASS
South Carolina previously had one of the highest number of elected statewide officials in the nation. Over the past few years, citizens have voted for the governor to appoint the adjutant general and the lieutenant governor. There is still a raft of constitutional officers (officials elected by the entire state) who should be appointed rather than elected, including the superintendent of education. Putting so many officers on statewide ballots has the effect of blurring accountability: Who really knows what the secretary of state does, or what the adjutant general does, except in a rare crisis? The governor should appoint these offices. (Imagine electing, say, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture or the secretary of commerce separately from the president. That is essentially the reality on a smaller scale in South Carolina.)
There are two elements to making the superintendent a gubernatorial appointment: a constitutional amendment removing the superintendent from the list of generally elected officers, and a bill enacting the necessary statutory changes. H.3146 (the constitutional amendment) and S.27 (the statutory changes) both passed their respective chambers and crossed over to the other, where debate will no doubt resume in January.
Gas tax hike: PASSED
After three years of effort, lawmakers finally passed a 72 percent gas tax hike along with numerous other fine and fee increases. Lawmakers have claimed that the bill (H.3516) would raise revenue to repair and maintain the state’s roads and bridges. It will not accomplish that end – and it isn’t designed to. The bill is largely an elaborate scheme to send money to the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which doesn’t repair or maintain roads but uses bond debt to finance new ones in politically influential counties.
The bill also purports to reform the Department of Transportation and takes a modest step toward that goal. The final conference committee bill abolished the Joint Transportation Review Committee and allowed the governor to remove commissioners at will, but failed to remove the commission entirely and place the DOT directly under the governor. The root of the accountability problem is not who appoints the commissioners, but the commission structure itself.
The bill passed the General Assembly and was vetoed by the governor. Lawmakers promptly overrode the veto and the new law takes effect July 1 of this year.
Bond bill: DID NOT PASS
The House proposed a $497 million bond bill (H.3722) for various state agency pet projects. Many of the agencies requesting bond funding did not see major increases in funding in this year’s proposed budget, and lawmakers repeatedly said during budget deliberations that there was little money to spend. The proposed bond funding would go to building and equipment renovation and maintenance. Even aside from the fiscal concern of plunging the taxpayers deeper in debt in the absence of cash on hand, maintenance and repair should be funded through the yearly budget – not paid for by debt financing. House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White has stated his intent to bring similar bond bills every few years. Debate on the bill was postponed until January of next year.
Pension reform: PASSED
This bill (H.3726) sent more money to a broken and insolvent pension system. The bill, now a law, increases both the taxpayer (employer) and employee contributions and made a few minor structural tweaks. Mandating increased employer contributions may well result in tax increases at the local level as well as the state, since many of the employers are counties and school districts as well as state agencies.
The state’s pension system debt is anywhere between $20 and $74 billion. The main culprits of this liability are poor investments and an unreasonably high assumed rate of return. This rate was set at 7.5 percent by state law, and last year the system had a 0 percent return. This new law only lowers the rate by 0.25 percent, to 7.25 percent, and while it does mandate an updated rate every four years, that rate will continue to be subject to lawmakers – hardly an objective, expert source of financial advice. The bill passed and was signed into law by the governor, and lawmakers are promising to visit structural reforms to the system next year.
Office of FOIA review: PASSED
This legislation (H.3352) amends the state’s Freedom of Information law. The bill tightens the time period during which agencies may respond, and forbids agencies from charging exorbitant rates for fulfilling FOIA requests.
On the other hand, the bill also allows public bodies to seek relief from “unduly burdensome, overly broad, vague, repetitive, or otherwise improper requests.” That term “improper’ is itself overly broad, and it’s concerning any time a law allows government agencies to take recourse against citizens for vague reasons.
The bill also turns FOIA violations into a civil rather than a criminal defense, which probably makes sense. The original version also created a new judicial branch to oversee FOIA challenges and complaints – an unnecessary expansion of government. This provision was removed but the other negative provisions remain.
Constitutional carry: DID NOT PASS
H.3700 allows anyone over the age of 21 who is legally allowed to own a handgun in South Carolina to carry that handgun in public, openly or concealed, without the requirement of a concealed weapons permit (CWP). It would still allow businesses to restrict weapons on their premises if they have legally posted a sign stating the prohibition. It would continue to prohibit carrying a weapon into a residence or institutions such as schools, daycares, churches, courthouses, hospitals, etc. without the permission of the owner or governing authority. Finally, the bill would enact reciprocity for CWP holders between South Carolina and all other states. This bill never received a committee hearing.
Another bill contained many of the same elements, but in the enacting language specified that the new protections would apply only to “individuals who legally may purchase a firearm from a properly licensed and certified firearms dealer.” This provision is almost certainly unenforceable. This bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
CWP reciprocity: NOT PASSED
H.3240 is a reciprocity bill that would have required South Carolina to recognize concealed weapons permits (CWPs) from all other states. Visitors, under this law, would follow South Carolina’s concealed carry laws while in our state. This caused much debate in committee over the provision in code that states the ownership of a CWP and the presence of a concealed weapon in a vehicle when pulled over. Legislators stated reciprocity could cause confusion and even consequences for visitors who are unaware of this SC law.
Regardless of the potential for confusion, keeping and bearing arms is a right and not a privilege, and citizens should not require permission from the government to exercise this right. This bill would have been a step in the right direction as it allowed more freedom to gun owners from out of state. The bill passed the House and was in the Senate Judiciary Committee when session ended.
Gun control: DID NOT PASS
S.158 is one of a number of bills that would have created additional roadblocks to obtaining a firearm, none of which passed out of committee. This specific legislation would have increased the waiting period for background checks when purchasing a gun from a firearms dealer to 28 days.
Individuals who wish to obtain a firearm for criminal purposes are extremely unlikely to attempt to obtain that firearm in a way that requires a background check. Even if a potential violent criminal fails a background check, he can always obtain a firearm through illegal channels. By contrast, a law-abiding citizen who has an immediate need of a firearm for self-defense purposes would be hindered from protecting himself. This bill never made it out of committee.
Licensing electrology: DID NOT PASS
H.3450 is one of a number of bills increasing the licensing and regulatory burden on entrepreneurs and businesses. This bill – and there are many like it – would require licensing by the Board of Medical Examiners for the practice of electrology and for electrology instruction. The bill created the Electrology Licensure Committee which would have consisted of five members appointed by the Governor.
All this would impose onerous requirements, regulations, fees, etc. with broad powers given to a governing board. Aside from the bureaucratic bloat and potential for abuse inherent in this legislation, licensing laws rarely enhance public safety or make quality more likely. They almost always drive up prices and keep lower-income entrepreneurs from entering the industry. This bill passed the House and was in the Senate Medical Affairs Committee when session ended.
Authorizing production of medical cannabis: DID NOT PASS
Companion bills H.3521 and S.212 would allow cannabis to be produced and distributed by facilities to authorized patients and their caregivers for treating debilitating medical conditions. All production, distribution, purchasing, and usage would be heavily regulated by the Department of Health and Environmental Control, with strict penalties for violation. The bill also contains legal protection for anyone acting under its provision.
While the regulations in the bill are quite burdensome, this legislation would at least make it possible for South Carolina patients to be treated with cannabis. Medical professionals, not the state, should be the primary judges of appropriate medical treatment. Unfortunately, neither bill passed out of committee.