After last year's breakneck finale with a sales tax hike and a voter-approved reassessment cap, the General Assembly's '07 legislative session that began this week will seem almost dull with retirement trust funds, cigarette tax hikes, expanded early childhood programs, and a cushy surplus to boot!
But, fear not, a few issues will surely raise some rancor in the legislature. School vouchers (or tax credits) aren't expected to make a comeback this year, but public school choice will be on the calendar, along with long-awaited reforms in the Department of Transportation and another push to put the constitutional officers under governor appointment.
While Congress is touting its first 100 hours, leaders in the General Assembly say all of these measures are going to take weeks of vetting as we move through the five-month session.
Remember those stories last week about Gov. Mark Sanford's $6.5 billion budget? Yeah, forget about it. As has always been the case, Sanford's plan means little to the legislature and they're only going to push through those parts of his budget they can't make a reasoned argument against (and there are few) and the items they were already planning for anyway (like increased law enforcement).
The good news is there will be an additional $487 million to play with year to year in the budget and an additional $634.6 million in one-time revenues. Senate Finance Committee Chair Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) said that while the former is open for whatever use, the latter will be left to one-time costs to prevent a state funding pinch in the future. Unfortunately, there's a mountain of one-time costs just waiting for those extra dollars.
New federal guidelines that require governments to insure they have the money to pay out promised benefits to retirees will hit the Statehouse this year. With a budget year that begins in January, the City of Charleston was one of the first governments in the country to have to wrangle with finding the money to back such a promise. For South Carolina, that's a long-term commitment of more than $9 billion.
"That's $9 billion, spelled with a B," Leatherman says.
The legislature will likely develop a trust fund dedicated to retiree benefit payments that can't be touched by the General Assembly. The wrangling will likely be over the amount of the opening deposit, with proposed sums ranging from $50 million to $500 million, which Leatherman notes would "eat up" a lot of the new money the state's found.
"I don't know if we'll go down that road," says Rep. Dan Cooper (R-Anderson), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. "We obviously have some other needs in the state."
One of those other needs is expanding the pilot program for 4-year-old kindergarten. The program is currently available in the handful of school districts that sued the state over a lack of equitable funding, but legislators are looking to move the program statewide, if not for all children (at a cost of about $113 million), then for at-risk children (at about $70 million).
"An at-risk child is at risk regardless of where they live," says Rep. Bob Walker (R-Spartanburg), chair of the House Education Committee.
Meanwhile, the halls of the Statehouse have grown quiet on the issue of school vouchers or tuition tax credits that would send public money to private schools. House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) says he has supported Gov. Sanford's efforts to allow public school students to transfer to private schools and take state money with them, but support doesn't seem to be growing for the measure.
"I haven't seen him (Sanford) do anything to get the votes this year," Harrell says.
Walker has also introduced legislation creating public school choice, opening enrollment for public schools regardless of attendance zones and school district lines.
"That, to me, is the choice that we need to be looking at," Walker says.
Sen. Harry Peeler (R-Cherokee) says that higher education funding will also be an issue in the General Assembly this year.
"We fund higher ed. by the squeaky wheel and we've got to stop that," he says.
With the national (and local) push to ban smoking in public places, it's not surprising that bills have been introduced in the House and the Senate to further limit the places where you can light up in South Carolina. Though he's allergic to smoke and avoids smoke-filled places, Senate leader Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston) says he's tired of the nanny approach to government.
"Smoking bans are the business of the business owners," he says.
Smokers shouldn't breathe a sigh of relief just yet. While hiking the nation's lowest cigarette tax has been a hollow threat in the past, legislative leaders say this is the year when smokers will have to pay up. A bill already introduced in the House would add 60 cents to the tax and the governor has proposed an increase of about half that.
"I see across-the-board, bipartisan support for raising the cigarette tax," says Peeler.
The question will turn to where the money should go, with the governor pushing for tax rebates and legislators looking to underfunded health programs, including Medicaid and aid for uninsured children.
The fight over cigarette money won't be the only thing that comes between the executive and legislative branches this year. With his budget proposal, Sanford took a jab at House leaders who he claims largely ignore his recommendations. The move appears to have all but destroyed fence-mending initiatives that began after Sanford's reelection in November.
In one of the more unique explanations, Sen. Peeler compared dealing with Sanford to dealing with a vegetarian English professor over the carving of a pig. "He's more worried with your grammar than the sharpness of your knife and you know he won't eat the meat anyway."
After a blistering assessment in December of the Department of Transportation that forced the swift ouster of Executive Director Elizabeth Mabry, both Sanford and the legislature agree change is necessary. Meanwhile, the folks at home are less worried about reforms and more concerned about traffic jams, potholes, and deadly roads.
"Everybody in the General Assembly agrees money is needed," says Rep. Annette Young (R-Dorchester), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, who has been leading reform talks. "But we're not giving them a penny until some restructuring is in place."
Young notes that an infusion of money is planned once the new Transportation leadership is determined. The current proposal would replace the executive director with a Transportation Secretary. While the secretary would likely be a cabinet appointment, there would also be a six-member transportation commission to ensure continued legislative involvement.
"I'm going to be fighting to make sure that rural South Carolina has a seat at the table," says Rep. Harry Ott (D-Calhoun), Democratic leader in the House.
The commission members will be selected by the legislators from the six Congressional districts, with commission members screened for experience and required to file with the State Ethics Commission, Young says. The group is expected to have more responsibilities than the existing seven-member commission, including contract approval.
Other state department reforms have been proposed by the governor, but could easily be pushed aside in the busy year.
But reforms for the state's constitutional offices are almost assured. The constitutional offices are those that you saw on the ballot in November and either didn't know what the person was supposed to do, didn't know the candidates, or both. The legislation has been introduced in both the Senate and the House by McConnell and Harrell to make most of the offices governor-appointed and for the governor and lieutenant governor to run on the same ticket.
Opposing viewpoints on education reform between Sanford and recently elected Superintendent of Education Jim Rex is a prime example of the pitfalls of too many voter-elected state leaders, Harrell says.
"What we ought to have is one position coming out of the executive branch," he says, regardless of whether it's a Democrat or a Republican in the governor's office.
While past reforms for constitutional offices were lumped together, the legislature will be taking these up one at a time.
"We discovered that (bundling them) makes it extremely difficult to get anything passed," says Rep. Jim Harrison (R-Richland), chair of the House Judiciary Committee. "This way it will be harder for one to sabotage another."
Other issues are on the table, including addressing hurricane insurance on the coast, property value losses due to local zoning decisions, municipal annexation roadblocks and workers compensation reforms. So contact your legislators. It'll keep them awake through the dull stuff, focused on what's important and mindful that it's less than two years before their fate is back in your hands.
With just around five months in the session, that gives legislators a good portion of the year to come up with some of the more unique pieces of legislation.
• H. 3108 – Prohibits state employees from screening their calls
• H. 3083 – Prohibits drivers under 18 from talking on their cellphones
• H. 3046 – Assures restaurants are not held responsible for their fat patrons
• S. 124 – Establishes Confederate Memorial Month in May
• S. 63 – Makes "disseminating profanity to a minor" a felony punishable by up to $5,000 or five years in jail
Ones to Watch
A rundown of some of the big issues and legislation already in the hopper.
A bill introduced in the house would allow students to pick their schools (H. 3124). The "open enrollment" option has a much better shot than the private school vouchers and tuition tax credits that have failed in the past few years. The hurdle will probably be in allowing students to seek enrollment outside of their district and the obvious hurdle of transporting students.
Several bills have been introduced regarding illegal immigrants, including requirements that parents provide proof their children are legally allowed to reside in the state when enrolling for public school (H. 3110), a measure prohibiting government agencies to print forms in foreign languages (H. 3080), and a measure requiring employers to use a federal verification system to ensure they are not employing illegal immigrants (H. 3029).
Bills have been introduced in the House and the Senate to further curtail public smoking (H. 3119, S. 209) and a Senate bill would also allow employers to request non smokers when advertising to fill a position (S. 187). A cigarette tax hike is almost assured this year, with the opening salvo coming from a House bill to hike the tax by 60 cents (H. 3072). Meanwhile, Sen. Mescher (R-Berkeley) has introduced a bill allowing the medicinal use of marijuana (S. 220).
Several bills address regional planning efforts among neighboring municipalities. Three Senate bills would also better position municipalities for annexations in growing urban areas (S. 201-203).