Weekly Legislative Update: Jan 21 – Jan 23, 2020

Happenings SC State House
What they did:

This week the House passed H.4819 – legislation to pay local Union County transportation officials out of gas-tax dollars for attending their meetings (SCPC analysis). It should be noted that in addition to diverting gas-tax revenue away from road repair, this bill also violates the constitutional prohibition on special, locally targeted bills. However, the Senate took no action on two similar bills for Kershaw and Lee County transportation officials. These bills bypassed committee and could be taken up anytime by the Senate.

S.996, which would extend the filing and screening period for Public Service Commission (PSC) candidates, was amended by the House to include language requiring the Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) – which screens, nominates and oversees the PSC – to consider racial, gender and other demographic diversity factors during the screenings and while making their findings. Since the bill has been amended, it will need to go back to the Senate for a vote, and as the extended process laid out in the bill was supposed to begin this Sunday, the dates will also have to be amended before the bill can become law.

For context, the PURC already found six candidates to be “qualified,” but did not actually nominate any of them to the four open seats. Under the joint resolutions, the PURC would accept new applications throughout the month of February, but candidates who withdrew/were not found qualified would not be able to reapply. 

Meanwhile in the Senate, debate over the education omnibus bill (S.419) continued. Both this bill and the House version (which passed last session) approach public education as a “workforce development system” in which schools are less about educating students, and more about supplying businesses with qualified workers. Some of the amendments debated (but not adopted as of yet) this week include adding three teachers to the state board of education; pushing back the school start date; and several versions of a “teacher bill of rights” which (among other things) would mandate unencumbered planning time for teachers and a safe and orderly work environment. 

S.909 passed out of committee and is now on the Senate floor calendar. This bill would make companies eligible for job development tax credits – even if they use staff leasing companies instead of actually hiring workers. Another bill that passed committee (with amendment) this week is H.4760, which would remove social studies testing in grades 3 – 8 and a high school history course, plus put limitations on the number of tests that can be administered per year.

Finally, two local education bills passed the House this week. H.3244 would make it harder to close rural Charleston schools by imposing additional process requirements. This bill is now awaiting consideration by the Senate after bypassing the committee process. S.975, which would consolidate two Clarendon school districts, passed the House after bypassing committee. As the Senate already passed this bill, it is now awaiting the signature of the governor. It should be noted that this bill gives the Clarendon County legislative delegation – which already appoints the remaining Clarendon school district’s board – power to appoint the initial board of trustees over the newly consolidated district. Beginning in 2020, the board will be elected by the public, although the legislative delegation will be able to fill vacancies that may arise that may arise.

The governor also gave his annual State of the State address, in which he discussed the need for earmark transparency in the budget, but suggested as an alternative for full disclosure and public debate on earmarks, that those funds be instead awarded to state agencies for “competitive grants” (would be disclosed on those agencies’ websites). This alternative would make this spending less transparent than ever, since legislators would essentially be allocating funds without knowing who the beneficiaries would be.

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What they said:

Asked why the Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) wants to reopen and extend the candidate filing and screening period for the Public Service Commission, Rep. (and PURC Vice Chairman) Bill Sandifer replied,

“We would hope…that in all four of these districts, that we could find three candidates not only qualified, but nominated, so that this body and the Senate, together, will have the maximum of three candidates to choose between.”

However, not all lawmakers enjoy having to vote on the record between multiple candidates – at least not when it comes to electing the state’s judges. As The Nerve has reported, judicial candidates who don’t believe they have the votes to win often drop out, leaving only one candidate for each judicial seat – and reportedly, judicial candidates are pressured to do so by lawmakers, “as there is an ‘intense dislike’ in the Legislature for recorded votes in judicial elections.”
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What they filed:

Lawmakers filed a number of alarming bills this week – most notably, H.4991, a statewide “red flag” law which would allow the government to seize the guns of individuals who have not committed a crime, if they are suspected to be a danger to themselves or others. In determining whether or not grounds for suspicion exist, the courts can consider “the reckless use, display, or brandishing of a firearm by the person” – terms which are not defined – and “abuse of alcohol by the person.”

S.1039, another anti-Second Amendment bill, would impose a permanent loss of gun rights for low-level crimes (crimes that carry a penalty of one year or more).

Another troubling bill is H.5016, which would allow local school board members to participate in the state health plan and the state pension plan. Both of these benefit plans are major budget expenses paid for by taxpayers, and the pension plan is dramatically underfunded and insolvent, with the deficit estimated as high as $81.9 billion.

Companion bills H.4996 and S.1029 would allow the South Carolina Research Authority (a state-created venture capital firm with a history of questionable practices and nontransparency) to invest in the obligations of a private organization as long as they have an investment grade rating from two credit rating services. These bills would also extend how long companies can remain in SCRA-operated “innovation centers,” and would add two seats to the SCRA executive committee (to be elected by the rest of the executive committee).

H.4998 would combine the Education Oversight Committee and the Commission on Higher Education into a new board – a legislatively controlled SC Commission for Comprehensive Education, charged with coordinating and implementing a “P-20 education system” (preschool to age 20). The goal is to create an “educational system that supports economic and job development” – in other words, to harness the education system to train workers to meet the goals of the state’s central planners, and the bill requires all actions taken under it to “complement our state’s job creation and economic development efforts.”

Moreover, the uniting of preschool, K-12 education and higher education would facilitate and could lead to massive data collection that tracks children from preschool to the workforce and possibly beyond (the goal of repeated legislative attempts to create a workforce and education data warehouse). In fact, one of the benchmarks of success listed in this bill is the “allowing [of] longitudinal data analyses of finances, programs and students.” (emphasis added)

Finally, yet another resolution to name an intersection after an elected official was introduced – H.5009, which would name the I-85/I-385 intersection in Greenville after President Donald Trump.

To view the full list of this week’s newly filed bills, click here.

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