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Last day of S.C. General Assembly a frenetic one, sees trustee bill fail

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COLUMBIA — Time ran out for South Carolina senators as they tried to pass a bill that would restructure the University of South Carolina's board on Thursday, the frenetic final day of the 2022 General Assembly session.

Gov. Henry McMaster's desk filled quickly on the final day as lawmakers also agreed to a bill that would overhaul South Carolina's sex offender registry to eliminate a requirement to register for life without a hearing and a ban on paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage.

A bill requiring minimum standards for police officers for use of force and vehicle pursuits and setting up two weeks of early voting also are heading to the governor.

Other bills such as one creating a program allowing parents of poorer students to use taxpayer money for private school tuition and allowing counties to continue charging user fees to pay for roads and other projects stayed alive by heading to conference committee where six lawmakers will work out differences between the House and Senate versions.

In the House, Speaker Jay Lucas swung down his gavel for the final time during his eight years leading the chamber right at the 5 p.m. end of session required by law. When the gavel thumped, Rep. Murrell Smith took over and the 124th General Assembly regular session was over.

The end of the two-year session means the end of bills that didn't pass both the House and the Senate. Bills that died include proposals to create a medical marijuana program and make South Carolina the 49th state with a hate crimes law.

Lawmakers aren't done with Columbia. They will be back June 15 to deal with finalizing the state budget and perhaps conference reports. There is a second special session at the end of June to address the governor's vetoes.

The end-of-session agreement also allows the House Speaker and Senate President to call legislators back to deal with abortion depending on what the U.S. Supreme Court decision says in a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade.

Thursday was a typically busy and sometimes hard-to-follow final day of a fairly unusual session. The COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed the chamber for much of the past two years, but by May, mask-use was ebbing, crowds filled the galleries and Statehouse tours were back.

The House was less stressful. Members took selfies together as the clock ticked toward 5 p.m. A steady stream of lawmakers made their way to shake Lucas' hand or give him a hug.

Rep. Jonathon Hill, admonished for throwing his papers in the air when a Lucas ruling didn't go his way last year, ended his goodbye speech by playfully tossing his speech in the air.

Things were more tense in the Senate, where opponents of an effort to restructure the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees ran out the clock.

A number of lawmakers were angry at trustees, feeling they were arrogant and power hungry, responsible for hiring a president who crudely criticized the school and left in less than two years after interfering in daily school affairs.

A small screening group of powerful lawmakers refused to put five incumbent trustees back up for re-election and some legislators wanted to fire the board and start over — or at least cut the number of trustees.

“The university will continue to be mismanaged. Money will be wasted. Good people will be driven off,” Democratic state Sen Dick Harpootlian of Columbia said as it became obvious the stall tactic would work.

Harpootlian suggested fellow Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto was holding up the bill because his law partner in Orangeburg is a trustee. Hutto said he hadn't even talked with his partner about the bill.

“I understand your frustration. It's 20 minutes ‘til five. It’s not going to happen," Hutto said. “It's good discussion about where we can go next year.”

Now House members return to their district for the June 14 primaries and for November's elections for new two-year terms. State senators are not up for reelection for four-year terms until 2024.


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