November 30, 2015

Governor authorizes unclaimed property funds to help pay for flood recovery efforts

SCDOT contractors work on a bridge in Fairfield County last month (Image: SCDOT)

SCDOT contractors work on a bridge in Fairfield County last month (Image: SCDOT)

South Carolina plans to pay some of the recovery costs from last month’s record flooding by using millions of dollars in unclaimed property funds.

In a letter to the state House and Senate budget chairmen this week, Gov. Nikki Haley wrote that State Treasurer Curtis Loftis had identified $9.25 million from the fund. The Unclaimed Property Fund is a state-run account for bank accounts, stock certificates, checks, insurance policies and utility deposits where the company cannot locate the proper owner.

The money will be transferred to the Adjutant General’s Office, which includes the South Carolina National Guard and the state Emergency Management Division. Adjutant Gen. Robert Livingston estimates the recovery efforts cost those agencies around $37 million. Of that number, 75 percent will be reimbursed by the federal government, while the state would need to pick up the remaining 25 percent.

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SC Supreme Court pushes back deadline on rural school funding

SC Supreme Court building in Columbia (File)

SC Supreme Court building in Columbia (File)

South Carolina’s highest court has pushed back its deadline for the legislature to come up with a plan to fund poor, rural school districts.

The Supreme Court on Thursday waived its Feb. 1 date for lawmakers to craft a solution to the challenges facing those schools.

The justices had ruled last year in favor of a lawsuit from six rural districts that claimed the state is not meeting its constitutional requirement to educate students in underserved areas. After a perceived lack of action by the legislature this past session, the court in September set the February deadline.

Lawmakers balked, saying they were already out of session until January and that window was too small for a plan to pass both chambers. House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President pro tempore Hugh Leatherman filed a response last month, arguing that the deadline was “arbitrary” and violated the separation of powers. The filing claimed the court was attempting a “complete usurpation of the legislative and executive branches’ constitutionally conferred rights.”

The Supreme Court agreed to set a new deadline that would be one week after the 2016 legislative session ends (likely late June or early July). The court switched directions after attorneys representing the schools expressed support for the later date. The districts have representatives on a pair of special House and Senate committees that have been working to craft a solution.

Lucas released a statement shortly after the court’s order, saying it showed “judicial overreach” would not prevail in South Carolina. “All branches of government should collectively work together within their constitutional authority, not overstep bounds in an effort to exert political clout,” he stated. “After avoidable legal proceedings that wasted valuable time and effort, it is apparent that the Supreme Court has finally agreed that their arbitrary deadlines and improper super panel stand in the way of real education reform.”

Supreme Court justices are appointed to 10-year terms by members of the legislature.

DSS requests $17 million, promises long-delayed child support database on track

DSS Senior Project Manager Jimmy Earley (File image: SCETV)

DSS Senior Project Manager Jimmy Earley (File image: SCETV)

South Carolina’s child services agency warns another roadblock will delay a child support database the federal government required 17 years ago.

Officials with the state Department of Social Services (DSS) told a state Senate panel on Wednesday that it took the federal regulators longer than expected to approve the system meant to track child support payments, but that the much-delayed system now has a completion date in October 2019.

The database, which has now gone through four different contractors and several legal challenges, was supposed to be a way for state officials to keep tabs on parents who pay child support. A 1988 federal law required the system to be in place by 1998. DSS has been assessed more than $120 million in fines over the past two decades for not having the system running, most of which were paid by contractors.

Agency officials said earlier this year the system would operate statewide by March 2019. But project manager Jimmy Earley updated the timeline for legislators Wednesday. Early said the new contract with technology solutions firm Xerox will be based on a similar Delaware database. The new system will also include a family court management system.

Earley asked the panel for $17 million next year toward the system’s creation.

The panel’s chairman said lawmakers will likely approve that money. “I think we’ll have to have discussions about that,” State Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, told WLTX-TV. “Because the consequences are too great if we don’t provide for those penalties.”

Ex-legislator indicted on charge of inappropriately touching House staffer

State Rep. Nelson Hardwick (Image: SCETV)

State Rep. Nelson Hardwick (Image: SCETV)

A Richland County grand jury has returned a misconduct in office charge against a former South Carolina legislator accused of inappropriately touching a female staffer earlier this year.

Nelson Hardwick resigned his Horry County district in May — the same day the House Speaker’s Office said its investigation deemed the accusations “valid.” The Republican had represented the Surfside Beach and Murrells Inlet areas in the House for nearly 10 years. His attorney previously denied the accusations against him.

The grand jury handed down the indictment on October 22, but the state Attorney General’s Office did not announce the finding until Monday. The indictment states Hardwick “did abuse his position and power over staff of the House of Representatives to lure an employee to his office and inappropriately touch her against her will” in late April.

Hardwick’s attorney has previously said she believes the public will eventually see her client was “falsely accused.” “We all know that politics can sometimes be dirty, and I am concerned that some people want to hurt Nelson,” attorney Henrietta Golding wrote in a statement.

The former lawmaker could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted and given the maximum sentence.

Voters in September elected Surfside Beach attorney Russell Fry to fill out the last year of Hardwick’s current term.

House Ethics Committee delays hearing on Harrell case

Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell (foreground) listens to Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham during Monday's hearing

Former House Speaker Bobby Harrell (foreground) listens to Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham during Monday’s hearing

Attorneys representing a former South Carolina House Speaker will have another month to prepare before facing a committee that is looking into his campaign finances.

The House Ethics Committee voted unanimously Monday to delay testimony from former Speaker Bobby Harrell on whether he should have to repay his campaign more than $113,000 in attorneys fees. The committee in September gave Harrell 30 days to reimburse the money, unanimously ruling the Charleston lawmaker should not have used campaign funds to pay legal fees in an ethics case against him.

Harrell used previous campaign contributions to pay $113,500 in legal expenses as he first fought, then eventually pleaded guilty to six ethics-related charges last year. He was sentenced to probation and had to resign his seat. Harrell was not at the September meeting.

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