April 23, 2014

SC Big Story: House votes to ban texting while driving

A roundup of what’s making news in South Carolina state government

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, called for legalized medical marijuana in a Wednesday press conference

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, called for legalized medical marijuana in a Wednesday press conference

The House on Wednesday gave overwhelming approval to a bill that would ban texting while driving in South Carolina, after opponents won some concessions on lighter penalties and a prohibition on cops searching a phone for evidence.

It marks the third time in five years that the House has passed some sort of ban on handheld devices behind the wheel. Previous versions have died without a vote in the Senate.

The move to pass the bill comes a week after the city of Greenville’s cell phone ban took effect. While the House proposal only deals with sending “text-based communications” behind the wheel, the Greenville law bans any use of a cell phone at all while driving. Nearly 20 other cities and municipalities in South Carolina have separate bans on texting.

State Rep. Phil Owens, R-Easley, said he would prefer a uniform law across the state. “We can listen to the people of the state of South Carolina,” he told lawmakers from the floor Wednesday. “You’ve got 80 or 90 percent of people telling you that they’re concerned we’re one of only two states that has not addressed the dangers of texting while driving.”

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“Emma’s Law” headed to governor

Steven Andereck of the ignition interlock manufacturing company SmartStart shows how the breathalyzer works in a 2013 demonstration

Steven Andereck of the ignition interlock manufacturing company SmartStart shows how the breathalyzer works in a 2013 demonstration

The South Carolina Senate on Wednesday unanimously agreed with the House on a DUI bill known as ”Emma’s Law,” sending the proposed law to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Nikki Haley has said she will sign the bill, which is named after 6-year-old Emma Longstreet. Longstreet was killed when a drunk driver slammed into her family’s van on New Year’s Day 2012. Her parents David and Karen have since gotten involved in S. 137, which would require certain drivers convicted of DUI to install breathalyzers in their vehicles in order to get their suspended license back.

“I’m relieved. I’m happy. But I would’ve rather had her here,” Karen Longstreet told WLTX after the vote. “But, I think she’ll save lives. She wanted to be a veterinarian, so instead of saving animals, she’s going to save people.”

The new law would require some first-time convicted DUI offenders to install “ignition interlock” devices on their vehicles for six months in order to restore a suspended driver’s license. The driver would need to blow into the device before starting it. The device will not allow a car to start if it detects alcohol. Ignition interlock is already required after second conviction. The state Department of Probation, Pardon, and Parole Services said 731 drivers are registered to use them statewide.

The Senate initially approved a tougher version of the bill last year that required the devices for a driver with a .08 blood-alcohol level (when a driver is legally considered impaired under state law). But the House raised that requirement to a .15 BAC when it approved the bill last week.

A second offense will now require the device for two years, while a third conviction would get four years.

“We do know that there are very few opportunities that we can take a vote in this General Assembly that will save lives,” the bill’s sponsor Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said after the vote. “I think the actions we took today will do just that.”

Democrats to ask their voters about medical marijuana legalization

A few dozen people attended Wednesday's announcement

A few dozen people attended Wednesday’s announcement

The South Carolina Democratic Party plans to ask its voters in June if they wish to legalize medical marijuana in the state, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said Wednesday.

The nonbinding referendum would be included on the Democratic Party ballot when voters decide which candidates to nominate for November’s general election.

Rutherford said the referendum would let lawmakers know how South Carolinians feel on the issue. “We don’t need to have patients denigrate themselves and lie there writhing in pain as we sit in this body and tell them a substance that God provides will be withheld from them.”

Rutherford was joined Wednesday by several South Carolinians who live with epilepsy, scoliosis, and other illnesses to call for the legalization of medical marijuana.

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SC Big Story: Report details how S.C. State hid deficit

S.C. Statehouse

S.C. Statehouse

A roundup of what’s making news in South Carolina state government

South Carolina State University improperly diverted nearly $6.5 million in funds that were not supposed to be used for education in an effort to hide a gradually worsening deficit at the school for years, according to a new report from the state Inspector General’s Office.

Inspector General Patrick Maley said his office found no fraud in its investigation, but noted the school’s actions were “inappropriate” and ended up spending millions of dollars that could have been spent on agricultural research.

The IG’s report notes that, for eight years, cash-strapped school leaders steadily funneled money from the 1890 Research and Extension Program to cover their expenses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture 1890 program for historically black land grant schools is used for ag research and community outreach and is funded through a combination of state and federal dollars.

The report notes the 1890 program at S.C. State  received over $22 million from 2006 to 2014, but only spent a bit shy of $15.7 million. The $6.45 million difference was mostly unspent funds that were supposed to carry over into the next year, but were instead diverted by S.C. State leaders, Maley wrote.

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Legislators say lottery money was not meant for college construction

Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson (File)

Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson (File)

When the South Carolina Education Lottery was approved in a referendum 14 years ago, voters were told a majority of the profit would go towards college scholarships for in-state students. But state lawmakers say some of that money is actually going to pay for new “brick and mortar” construction at schools, which they did not intend when they created the program.

“As of late, there’s been some instances where it’s been used in technical colleges and some four-year institutions to actually do building projects,” House Ways & Means Committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said Tuesday.  White, who voted in favor of legislation creating the lottery in 2001, said the construction funding is legal but violates what lawmakers intended when they created the lottery in the first place.

He has proposed legislation that would specifically bar higher education institutions from using lottery proceeds towards capital improvement projects. His bill unanimously cleared the Ways & Means Committee on Tuesday, sending it to the House floor. No one spoke against the proposal during a subcommittee meeting earlier that day.

White said he was aware of five schools, including Midlands Technical College in Columbia and Francis Marion University in Florence, which had used lottery proceeds for construction. A Midlands Tech spokesman could not be reached Tuesday, while a Francis Marion spokesman said he would need to speak with school finance officers before responding.

Some legislators noted the scholarships are losing their relative value. For example, the lottery-funded LIFE scholarship covers $5,000 towards tuition each year at the University of South Carolina. The scholarship was enough to pay for USC’s nearly $3,900 in-state tuition in 2001, but falls well short of the $10,791 mark in 2014.

“The scholarship is not keeping pace with inflation,” State Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said during Tuesday’s meeting. ”So as we’re not increasing it, what we’re doing is devaluing it. And we’re doing it to the benefit of other hands getting in the pot.” Bingham also voted for the lottery in 2001.

White said he would also like to see more scholarship money go towards textbooks.