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SC legislators tackle immigration, PACT, state color, but leave other issues unresolved

Elephant Stampede: Education reform squeezes into conservative-heavy session

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Things were going so swimmingly by mid-May in the Statehouse that House leaders were floating the idea of heading home early to save the taxpayers a little money (and, heck, nobody likes the Columbia heat in June). Unfortunately for them, the work piled up and there's up to three more days of it before legislators wrap the session and start fresh in 2009. Most of the controversial issues have been settled — immigration, PACT testing, the official state color. Other issues will have to wait until next year — cigarette taxes, school choice, and energy reforms.

Immigration

State legislators went from one end of the state to the other last fall, getting voter input and rousing the feeling that reforms were on their way. After batting a bill back and forth between the House and the Senate (with neither quite willing to move the ball forward), everyone finally agreed on legislation that takes away a seemingly mythical state business license.

The bill requires employers to verify the immigrant status of all of their workers, either through a state drivers license or through the federal e-verify program. The state's Department of Labor will be investigating accusations of non-compliance and will be performing random checks. While fines between $100 and $1,000 will be assessed, employers violating the law will also have their South Carolina business license revoked for a certain amount of time, depending on whether this is a first, second, or third offense.

Employers may be scratching their heads at this wrinkle. "State business license? I don't have no freakin' business license." You're right. It's less of a license and more of a privilege that the state will revoke.

"When you establish a business in the state of South Carolina, you tacitly receive a license to do such," says House Majority Leader Jim Merrill (R-Daniel Island). "There are a lot of contracts of sorts that aren't on paper."

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Yeah, like membership to the He-Man Woman Haters Club.

Democratic House leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews, says initial legislation that would have included only businesses with government contracts would have been on better legal footing. In that instance, the state could have revoked lucrative state deals instead of imaginary licenses.

"To take a license away from me that I didn't request and I didn't possess won't work well on the farm," he says.

The law also dictates the revocation of municipal business licenses, but enforcement will be complicated. Lawn care and construction companies, for instance, could travel among five or six municipalities for employment.

"It's not completely clear how that will work yet," says Reba Campbell with the South Carolina Municipal Association.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) notes that the law also requires the State Law Enforcement Division to seek out a memorandum of understanding with federal agents to give state troopers more power in regards to immigration, though Ott notes that power won't come without a compromise from the U.S. government.

Thrown in the waste bin for this session are proposals by Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, that would have called for a Constitutional Convention to deal with illegal immigration and another that would have prevented most state documents from being printed in foreign languages.

"From my perspective, I feel like the House dropped the ball there," McConnell says.

Test Put to Rest

The Palmetto Achievement Test died last week. Feedback from educators and parents had never been good. Stories were legion of teachers framing coursework around the test and results coming back months after any real progress could be made. The new test promises to be less complicated in terms of preparation, test-taking, and dissemination of the results. Given to students from the third through eighth grades, the multiple-choice tests will be graded and returned to the teachers months before PACT results.

What didn't get through the pipes was school choice. In the closing hours of the 2007 session, a bill that would have allowed students and parents to shop outside of their attendance zones made it to Gov. Mark Sanford's desk. But supporters couldn't overcome the governor's veto pen, last year. This year, the legislation hardly received traction.

Faith in Faith

One of the first things Arthur Ravenel Jr. did when he joined the Charleston County School Board was to reintroduce a public prayer before board meetings. In this session, the Lowcountry politician's old buddies in the state legislature threw that nugget, along with several others, on the sacrificial fire.

The first step was a law allowing a high school elective on the history and literature of the Bible. Charleston has yet to develop a program. Dorchester 2 was quick to act, but had trouble with some less than secular materials.

The rest of the Holy legislation was left for the end of the session, including the statewide law allowing public body prayers similar to the Charleston School Board's rule, an "I Believe" license plate, complete with cross and stained glass, and authorization for the display of The Ten Commandments and The Lord's Prayer.

Viewing from a Safe Distance

Anyone who thought the worst moral scourge in South Carolina was gay couples picking out china patterns just doesn't realize how creative Christian conservatives can be.

In 2007, a bill was introduced to much fanfare that would have required a woman considering an abortion to view a picture of the ultrasound. Legislators were apparently prepared to scare these women into backing out or to further scar them with the image of the fetus.

After a barrage of attention (and the national spotlight that South Carolina craves), Attorney General Henry McMaster suggested the bill wouldn't stand up against the inevitable court challenge. Earlier this year, the legislature settled on requiring that these women be given the option to view the ultrasound.

Before the dust had even settled, the conservatives moved on to regulating strip clubs. Suggesting these businesses encourage unseemly things like drugs, crime, and bedazzled crotchless panties, the state's nonprofit Palmetto Family Council led the charge on a stripper bill that would require six feet between strippers and patrons (thus ending the champagne room) and close all adult establishments at midnight.

While the bill didn't make it to a vote, there's little doubt it'll return next year.

Bring Your Gun to School Day

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007, South Carolina legislators introduced a bill that would have allowed guns on grade school and college campuses. They argued that, had victims been armed, things would have turned out differently. The counter argument is that if every crazy nut has a gun on a college campus, an argument over Friday's mystery meat in the cafeteria could spawn the next O.K. Corral.

Late in the session, an alternate bill was introduced that would hold the state liable when an incident in a no-gun zone could have ended differently if victims were armed. The bill would go beyond schools, including voting booths and just about any retail center.

Smoke 'em If You Got 'em

A bill first proposed to further limit smoking in public places seemed like a positive step forward for non-smoking advocates. But, as more communities developed local smoking bans, legislators pressed for an amendment that would have superseded local control on the issue with a blanket ban on smoking in restaurants, but an opt-out for bars. And so a bill that seemed to enhance smoking bans would have instead rolled back some of the state's more stringent municipal ordinances. Regardless of a push by cigarette lobbyists, the bill didn't make it to a vote, but look for it in 2009.

At seven cents a pack, South Carolina's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax really wasn't quite so pathetic until North Carolina, the Mecca for smokers, raised its smoke stick tax. All of a sudden South Carolina not only looked like it was doing smokers a favor, it seemed the state was turning its back on millions of dollars in revenue. But a plan to raise the tax 50 cents a pack to pay for health care costs met the unshakable wall of a governor who refuses to raise any tax (regardless of the vice) without lowering another tax. Again, the veto pen was mightier than the legislative will to override it.

"I don't know if we'll get another shot at the cigarette tax," says Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon. Well, there's always 2011.

Other issues

If there was one thing legislators will hang their hats on coming out of this session, it would be the tax reforms that came from 2006 ballot referendums. An increase in the state sales tax replaced most of the taxes tied to school operating costs statewide, and a 15 percent cap on the reassessed tax values of homes has made tax bills a little lighter each year. Candidates campaigning this spring are already sounding the alarm from business owners upset about carrying the local tax burden with no state aid.

The legislature also approved stiffer DUI laws that put penalties on a sliding scale depending on the number of cocktails you've had, and it made shared health care plans available for small businesses.

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