October 21, 2014

Sabb takes advantage of increased turnout, wins Pee Dee Senate race

State Rep. Ronnie Sabb, D-Kingstree

State Rep. Ronnie Sabb, D-Kingstree

Voters in the Pee Dee on Tuesday decided to promote State Rep. Ronnie Sabb, D-Greeleyville, sending the second-term South Carolina House member to the state Senate.

Sabb took 58.7 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s Democratic runoff election for Senate District 32, eclipsing Kingstree attorney Sam Floyd’s 41.3 percent.

District 32 centers around Williamsburg County, but also includes western Georgetown County and slivers of Florence, Berkeley, and Horry counties.

The seat was held for 22 years by State Sen. Yancey McGill before McGill resigned to become lieutenant governor earlier this summer. Since no Republicans have entered the race, the winner of the Democratic primary will almost certainly take the seat in November.

Sam Floyd (Image: samfloydforsenate32.com)

Sam Floyd (Image: samfloydforsenate32.com)

It was a come-from-behind victory for Sabb. The Williamsurg County attorney had more than 1,100 fewer votes than Floyd in the initial September 2 Democratic primary. But he took advantage of higher turnout from two weeks ago, going from 3,485 total votes in the primary to 9,639 in Tuesday’s runoff. Floyd’s total votes also increased, but not nearly as much.

Sabb, a former assistant solicitor and general counsel at Santee Cooper power utility, has served in the House for 4 years.

His victory means another special election is now required for Sabb’s seat in the House. Elections officials say that special election will likely occur in early 2015.

Senators say DSS should move more quickly on hiring new caseworkers


Sen. Joel Lourie said DSS "should be embarrassed" about high turnover rates and large caseloads month after the agency came under fire for child deaths (Image: SCETV)

Sen. Joel Lourie said DSS “should be embarrassed” about high turnover rates and large caseloads that still exist months after the agency came under fire for child deaths (Image: SCETV)

State senators are urging South Carolina’s child welfare agency to do what it can to hire more caseworkers as soon as possible, saying it will take too long to wait until a budget increase is approved next year.

The Department of Social Services (DSS) said it needs 202 new employees and $10 million to ease its workers’ caseloads. But members of the Senate committee who are investigating DSS said during a Tuesday hearing that it could be a year before DSS gets that money. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, noted lawmakers would not approve a new budget until July 2015, and it would take months longer for the agency to advertise, hire, and train new positions.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he was frustrated that, despite the public outcry and calls for change, DSS still only has 620 child welfare caseworkers at its county offices. That is a tiny net increase from 615 in May, despite the agency receiving enough additional funds to hire 50 more caseworkers this past year.

Lourie blamed a high employee turnover rate and said DSS “should be embarrassed” about the still-large caseloads for its child welfare employees. He insisted that agency officials are not treating the situation as urgently as they should. “Why wouldn’t you go to Gov. Haley and have her do an executive plan of action and go request that money… right now?” he said during the hearing. “And start talking about paying caseworkers more right now?” He said the agency could go to the state Budget & Control Board next month for permission to spend money on additional hires.

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SC House names special committee to solve road funding dilemma

Crews work to widen Interstate 26 in Lexington County earlier this summer (Image: SCDOT)

Crews work to widen Interstate 26 in Lexington County earlier this summer (Image: SCDOT)

Acting South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, has taken advantage of his new post to shift attention to South Carolina’s aging roads — and how lawmakers can address a looming $42 billion gap by 2040 between necessary work and the current means to pay for it.

Lucas — who is temporarily acting as Speaker of the House following Rep. Bobby Harrell’s, R-Charleston, suspension on Thursday — announced Friday he is creating a special ad hoc committee to examine what steps South Carolina can take to better fund its roadways.

The Special Infrastructure & Management Committee is tasked with identifying new funding sources that can be dedicated towards road maintenance and discussing what reforms are necessary at the state Department of Transportation (SCDOT) to addresses those needs. The first meeting will be on Tuesday, September 16.

“It’s not all a lack of dollars, it’s not all mismanagement but the two go hand-in-hand and somewhere in this equation, something’s not adding up right,” Lucas said in a statement. “It’s time we get to the bottom of all this, because all South Carolinians are far too familiar with the end results this has produced so far – less than satisfactory roads.”

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Race to replace Harrell already underway


Rep. Jay Lucas (R-Hartsville) becomes acting Speaker after Harrell's suspension

Rep. Jay Lucas (R-Hartsville) became acting Speaker after Harrell’s suspension

The same day that South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell was officially suspended from his position, positioning was already underway among legislators who hope replace him.

The Charleston Republican lost his leadership title after a grand jury indicted him this week on nine counts based on accusations that he misused campaign funds and covered it up in required campaign disclosure forms.

Since Harrell was only suspended, he has not technically resigned his seat. In theory, he could return to the post if his legal issues are settled favorably by the end of the year.


Rep. Kenny Bingham (File)

Rep. Kenny Bingham (File)

With the suspension, Speaker pro tempore James “Jay” Lucas, R-Hartsville, becomes the acting Speaker. Lucas’ remaining term will only last until a few weeks after Election Day. The elected House members will then vote for a Speaker shortly before they return to a new two-year session in January.

Lucas, who is running unopposed in his district this year, has indicated he will seek the Speaker’s job permanently. Lucas is considered the favorite due to his connections with many of the same Republicans and Democrats who previously backed Harrell.  Former House majority leaders Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, and Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, have also said they are pursuing the job.

House budget chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, had expressed interest in the position. But on Thursday he decided against running and instead threw his support behind Lucas, according to the Charleston Post & Courier.

State Rep. Jim Merrill (FILE)

State Rep. Jim Merrill (FILE)

On Thursday morning, Harrell’s office sent out a statement to media outlets saying he had voluntarily suspended himself from office, but the Attorney General’s office said Harrell could not due that. An opinion written by state Solicitor General Robert Cook (who answers to the Attorney General) on Thursday noted that Harrell was automatically suspended from the House as soon as the indictment was handed down by the grand jury. “Mr. Harrell is rendered disqualified from participation ‘in the business of his public office’ as a matter of law upon indictment,” Cook wrote.

Since Harrell was automatically suspended from the position, Cook wrote, he could not officially suspend himself. Instead, the Solicitor General said Speaker pro tempore Lucas immediately took on the responsibility.

The Speaker’s Office sent out a letter from Lucas late Thursday afternoon agreeing to follow the Attorney General’s opinion.

“I regret this unfortunate circumstance,” Lucas wrote, saying he believed “that issue to be moot.”

Harrell suspends himself from SC House Speaker position

Copy of Harrell's letter to the House clerk on Thursday (Click for larger view)

Copy of Harrell’s letter to the House clerk on Thursday (Click for larger view)

South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, has now suspended himself from office, a day after the Richland County Grand Jury handed down nine indictments against him related to accusations of misusing campaign funds.

“I am proactively taking this step because I believe it is the right decision for the South Carolina House of Representatives, its members and the people we serve,” Harrell wrote in a letter to the House Clerk on Thursday. “I have great respect for this institution and the people of South Carolina. I have always sought to act in their best interest and continue to do so now by taking this action and suspending myself from office.”

Harrell may have had no choice, as state law clearly requires legislators who are indicted for felonies or crimes carrying more than two years in prison to be automatically suspended without pay.

The suspension means Speaker pro tempore Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, will become Acting Speaker of the House on a temporary basis. Legislators were already scheduled to vote on the Speaker position before returning to Columbia for a new session in January. Several other prominent House Republicans, including former majority leaders State Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, and Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, had expressed interest in the position if it came open.

Rep. Jay Lucas (R-Hartsville) becomes Acting Speaker after Harrell's suspension

Rep. Jay Lucas (R-Hartsville) becomes Acting Speaker after Harrell’s suspension

Meanwhile the South Carolina Democratic Party, which had all but written off Harrell’s opponent in his reelection bid this November, said Thursday it would offer more help to Charleston realtor Mary Tinkler. Tinkler and Green Party candidate Sue Edward were considered heavy underdogs in the House District 114 race against Harrell.

“Now more than ever the voters of District 114 deserve honest, ethical representation,” House Democratic Caucus spokesman Tyler Jones said in an email, adding the party now considered the seat one of five they are hoping to pick up in November. Republicans currently have a comfortable 78-46 margin over Democrats in the South Carolina House.