What happened at the Statehouse this week?
12/10/21: House covid bill stuck until next year
In an unexpected move, perhaps due to mounting pressure from citizens, the SC House this week advanced a bill (H.3126) addressing COVID-19 vaccine mandates – though the version that ultimately passed lacks protection for most workers, and has no clear path to becoming law this year.
Critically, a section prohibiting private employers from firing unvaccinated workers was removed from the bill. What’s left is a conciliatory, half-step policy that would offer state unemployment benefits to private workers who are terminated for refusing a vaccine. According to the bill, only state workers, independent contractors, non-employee vendors, and students would be protected against vaccine mandates by a state government employer or school district.
It would also appropriate $20 million in taxpayer dollars for private employer COVID-19 testing (half the funds would be administered by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, the other half by the Medical University of South Carolina.)
Regardless of what’s in the bill, House lawmakers made clear that South Carolina’s coronavirus laws won’t change until next year when they blocked S.177 from consideration – a bill that already passed the Senate and contains stronger protection against vaccine mandates (see below). For H.3126 to become law, it would need to pass the Senate, and senators have indicated they will not return until the legislative session begins in January. There’s also a chance that when the full General Assembly returns, disagreements between the two chambers on policy specifics could hold up mandate protections even longer.
In the meantime, be on the lookout for our upcoming report on this year’s prefile bills, which could have an impact on gun ownership, freedom of speech, education policy, legislator pay, and of course, COVID-19 policy.
12/3/21: House prioritizes redistricting, blocks COVID-19 resolution
The SC House met for a two-day special session this week to pass legislation redrawing its 124 electoral districts, a process called redistricting. But under current session rules, the General Assembly can also consider a list of other items when called to the Statehouse, including “legislation concerning COVID-19 relief funding and related maters“.
Enter S.177. The resolution states that no person in South Carolina can be forced to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Businesses would be prohibited from firing workers who refused to get vaccinated – though there are limits as to who is covered by the policy. While it is unclear whether the resolution is permitted under the current rules, those rules can be ignored or amended with enough votes.
Ahead of the special session, a push began among several state lawmakers, including the bill’s primary sponsor, to have S.177 be considered. On Wednesday, however, a last-minute rule change was planned to set redistricting for priority status – effectively killing the COVID-19 resolution until next year.
This is significant for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder of how quickly legislative leaders will shut something down that could interfere with their agenda, or was simply not approved ahead of time. A review of the Statehouse website shows that the agenda for the committee meeting was posted just hours before it occurred. The meeting was not streamed.
Second, the manner in which the committee blocked the resolution was misleading to the public. The committee set redistricting for “special order”, which prevents other items from being considered until it fully passes the House. According to committee members, this move would not stop a lawmaker from trying to take up other legislation afterwards. The problem is that the final House vote on redistricting won’t occur until next Monday – leaving no time for other legislative business. This, of course, was known to the committee when it changed the rules.
We should note, however, that leaving the door open for last-minute legislation during a special session is not without risk. There are virtually no limits on can what be passed during this period. The sine die resolution can be amended and it rules thrown out with enough votes. Lawmakers famously rushed through a massive incentives package for Boeing’s Charleston assembly plant during a special session in 2009. In any event, legislative business, except for redistricting, is finished for the year.
The Senate meets next week to vote on its own electoral map. The General Assembly will convene for next year’s legislative session on Tuesday, January 11.