Is the Legislative Session Over? Not Exactly.

UPDATE: Lawmakers have cancelled the May special session and postponed all business (including consideration of the budget) until the June session (27-28). 

 

In theory, the 2018 legislative session ended last Thursday, May 10. However, session is far from over. Before leaving town, lawmakers passed a sine die resolution allowing at least two special sessions over the summer: May 23-24 and June 27-28. The General Assembly could also come back for a third special session, if the House speaker and Senate president pro tem decide to call them back.

During these sessions, they are limited to a handful of topics: V.C. Summer-related bills; income tax conformity bills; the state budget; bills in conference committee; and local legislation.

Lawmakers can also confirm appointments and, in the case of the June session, may hold legislative elections for the numerous offices controlled by the General Assembly. The legislatively elected Public Service Commission (PSC), for instance, has one seat open. Lawmakers filled two other PSC seats last week, but declined to elect any of the three nominees for the remaining seat.  Under the terms of the sine die resolution, lawmakers could fill that seat in the June session, but not the one in May.

 

Session length: Too long or too short?

For years, South Carolina’s legislative session has been one of the longest in the country. As a general rule, longer legislative sessions tend to produce higher levels of spending and encourage collusion between lobbyists and lawmakers. Shortening the legislative session is an element of SCPC’s reform agenda for that reason.

In 2016, lawmakers passed a modest cut of three weeks, with plenty of loopholes for extending session – as they have for two years straight.

Extending session beyond the statutory adjournment date has long been a legislative practice. Normally, lawmakers plan to deal primarily with the budget (if it’s not passed yet), any bills in conference committee, and gubernatorial vetoes. It is more unusual to schedule two special sessions, but the fact that session is invariably extended regardless of session length points to a simple lack of legislative will to work within the legal time constraints.

For instance, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman blamed the shorter session for lawmakers’ failure to pass a budget on time, despite the fact that they could shave weeks off the typical budget process if they simply followed the correct budget process required by law.

It is also significant that one of the primary purposes of this year’s special sessions – the energy issue – has been at the top of the legislative agenda for the entire five-month session. In fact, lawmakers were hammering out energy “solutions” before session ever began, and various bills and policy approaches have been tossed back and forth for months. In other words, lawmakers have had plenty of time to work on this issue.

 

When will session actually end?

The real end date of this year’s legislative session is November 11, 2018 as stated in the sine die resolution. After that day, the presiding officers of the House and Senate cannot call the General Assembly back into session. Of course, the 2019 session will begin a scant two months later.

Despite all of this, legislation was filed this year to lengthen session. The bill did not move, but will likely be refiled for the next session.

The point of shortening session is to reduce the amount of time lawmakers spend in the environs of the State House, allowing them less time to be influenced by the capital’s vast population of lobbyists and special interests.

Unfortunately, merely shortening session will not accomplish this as long as loopholes – like the ability to easily extend the time spent in the State House – remain in place.

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