COLUMBIA — Dozens of bills passed the South Carolina House and Senate before the regular session was gaveled to a close Thursday, though key issues such as education reform and management of the state-owned utility company Santee Cooper remain unresolved.
Legislators passed bills including a ridesharing safety act that requires those services to display their license plate numbers on the front of their vehicles, as well as an expansion of the solar energy industry. Unresolved matters included proposals to reform the state's education system and to achieve a blueprint for allowing private companies to make bids to buy or manage Santee Cooper.
Lawmakers return for a special session May 20 to continue negotiations including deciding the future of the utility. Meanwhile, some lawmakers headed home voicing displeasure with a process they say prioritizes some bills but kills others before they can even get a hearing. South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Jerry Govan has previously expressed his frustrations over the lack of movement of legislation by caucus members. Part of the challenge in the General Assembly is the process by which legislation is put on the calendar, the Orangeburg lawmaker said.
Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson stridently criticized colleagues this week who sent a bill allowing people to openly carry guns in public straight to the floor without any hearings. The Charleston Democrat's own legislation to extend the amount of time examiners can take to complete a background check on gun purchases has been mostly ignored.
"Gun-mania done swept South Carolina," Kimpson said of the fast-moving bill. "It shocks the conscience ... no subcommittee, no testimony." Senators opposed to the measure ultimately kept the gun bill from coming to a vote.
Lawmakers in the upcoming special session will be limited to considering Santee Cooper, the budget, any vetoes issued by Gov. Henry McMaster and a Senate bill that would limit McMaster from using his power to make appointments when lawmakers aren't in session. The House has refused to act on the Senate proposal and it became a point of contention in the session's final week. Several groups of lawmakers will meet in conference committee to negotiate differences over several bills including a proposal to offer $120 million in tax breaks to the Carolina Panthers to move their North Carolina practice fields and team headquarters to South Carolina.
The House passed its version of the massive education bill in March while the Senate has been systematically going through its version, eliminating several sections including a provision that would have created an additional education oversight committee for kindergarten through 12th grade.
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McMaster has praised the House for swift steps to pass education reform, but also criticized the Senate, saying it has "failed to act" on education.
Education Committee Chairman Sen. Greg Hembree said that while legislation will not pass this year, lawmakers agreed to continue discussions. Nearly 10,000 people rallied at the Statehouse grounds last week, many of them teachers, students and activists seeking reform. They called lawmakers' attention to teacher shortages and retention issues, a need to reduce classroom sizes, and demands to increase pay and hire more school counselors, among other issues.
Lawmakers moved closer this session to resolving how they will decide the future of Santee Cooper, but any move to sell the state-owned utility or have a private company manage it is still months away at earliest.
Both the House and Senate passed proposals to create a system to take bids on Santee Cooper's future. But there are differences. The House version included a December deadline not in the Senate version. So the chambers must work out a compromise in conference committee.
Santee Cooper is about $9 billion in debt with about half of it coming from its minority stake in a pair of nuclear reactors abandoned during construction. If the utility is bought, the private company might absorb that debt. If Santee Cooper is managed, that debt stays. Either way, Santee Cooper rates will likely rise.
- A bill requiring ride-sharing drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft to display their license tag numbers on a sign on the front of their vehicle. The Samantha L. Josephson Ridesharing Safety Act also makes it a crime for a person to pose as a rideshare driver. The proposal was prompted by the death of Josephson, a University of South Carolina student who police said was killed after mistakenly entering the vehicle of a fake Uber driver.
- The Tucker Hipps Transparency Act, which makes permanent a requirement that colleges and universities in South Carolina report hazing, sexual assaults, alcohol violations and other dangerous behavior. The report must be posted on the school's website.
- A proposal that expands solar energy in South Carolina by lifting caps on the number of rooftop solar installations in the state and extends contracts to 10 years to big solar energy producers that can deliver electricity for below the cost of traditional utilities.