April 21, 2014

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.

S.C. Senate votes to allow social card games

SC Senate (File)

SC Senate (File)

The state Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would allow people to gather for friendly games of cards in South Carolina.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Under a 212-year-old state law, all forms of gambling are technically illegal in South Carolina with the exception of the state lottery and charity raffles. Law enforcement rarely enforces the ban on unorganized groups unless a significant amount of money is involved.

However, State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he filed the bill after a State Law Enforcement Division officer told the Sun City Hilton Head retirement community in his district that the community’s organized bridge and Mahjong games were illegal under state law and must stop. The 14,000-member Sun City community has since halted organized card games.

Under the fix he proposed, people who are members of a club or other social organization could still gather to play cards or dice, so long as “no person or entity of any kind receives any direct or indirect economic, financial, or monetary benefit of any kind.” The host could also not be paid for holding the games. In other words, a person still could not bet even small amounts of money under the law, but would still be able to organize cards and dice games without any winnings involved.

The bill passed 39-0 on Tuesday. It needs another procedural vote before it can head to the House of Representatives.

Any loosening of gambling restrictions is usually viewed with suspicion in South Carolina, long after a state senator quietly removed seemingly innocuous language from the 1986 budget that ended up legalizing video poker for a decade. Davis said he spent months working with law enforcement and the Southern Baptist Convention to ensure the language was acceptable to all involved. He was able to get the bill through the Judiciary Committee in a 21-0 vote.

Conservationists question hunt that killed 11,600 cormorants

Double-crested cormorant (Image: SCDNR)

Double-crested cormorant (Image: SCDNR)

For the first time this February, hunters in South Carolina were able to shoot double-crested cormorants — and a new report shows over 11,000 of the birds were killed, an unprecedented amount for any state nationwide.

Cormorants are large seabirds that nest in South Carolina’s coastal plains lakes during the winter. The birds are sometimes considered pests due to the amount of fish they eat, but are normally protected as migratory non-game birds under federal law. No one is sure how many nest along South Carolina’s Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. A 2008 state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) study estimated about 6,000 cormorants lived on that lake, but that number appears to be either outdated or inaccurate judging from the new hunting totals.

Last year, state legislators ordered DNR to work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and authorize a month-long hunt of the birds from February 2 to March 1. The agency released the results of that hunt to The State newspaper in Columbia last week, showing over 11,600 cormorants were reported killed during the time period.

State Rep. Phillip Lowe, a Florence Republican who pushed for the language in this year’s budget, said the hunt is in response to complaints from anglers that the cormorant population is growing too rapidly and is devouring the number of fish on the lakes. “When I grew up… you might go out and see 20 or 30 of these,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. ”You can go out now and see 4,000 or 5,000 of them working in areas. Their population is way out of control.”

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Judge grants another extension in Harrell-Wilson dispute

House Speaker Bobby Harrell (File)

House Speaker Bobby Harrell (File)

An effort to remove South Carolina’s top prosecutor from an ethics case involving one of the state’s most powerful politicians is getting a second day in court.

The Associated Press reports State Grand Jury Clerk Jim Parks confirmed that lawyers representing Attorney General Alan Wilson had been given additional time to file briefs in the matter. In January, Wilson referred findings from a State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell to the Grand Jury.

Harrell’s attorneys have since sought to remove Wilson from the case, claiming the Attorney General tried to intimidate one of Harrell’s staffers. Wilson adamantly denied the accusation, and the staffer admitted the threat had not been explicit.

SC Attorney Gen. Alan Wilson (File)

SC Attorney Gen. Alan Wilson (File)

Following March 21 hearing, Circuit Judge Casey Manning gave both sides a week to file briefs in the matter. Since then, both Harrell’s and Wilson’s attorneys have sought extensions. Parks said a second hearing will be set once those briefs are submitted.

SLED began investigating Harrell in February 2013 after several organizations filed a complaint claiming the Speaker was misusing his office for personal gain. Harrell calls the original complaint “baseless” and maintains it is a smear campaign.

Mammoth fossil bill moves forward — with a mother’s nudge

A third grader’s  idea to honor the Columbian mammoth as the state fossil passed the Senate, only after her mom finally called Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler.

Peeler has opposed naming any more official state items, but budged this time:

“I know the power of mothers and my Mama always said, ‘Don’t mess with mama bear’s cubs.’ So I was reminded of that yesterday.”

Olivia McConnell’s mother Amanda said she did not make any phone calls –until it looked like Peeler was blocking the bill on principle.  Then she called on friends and family to email, tweet and call Peeler.

“I asked and begged and pleaded with him as a mother and as a South Carolinian to appreciate that this is part of South Carolina history and is not just an emblem. And it was never just an emblem to her,” McConnell said.

“We have gone about this the right way,” McConnell said, as she and her husband let Olivia do all the work, with the freedom to give up at any time she wanted.

The eight-year old saw the bill through by making her case to her district House lawmakers. Rep. Robert Ridgeway III, D-Manning, agreed to sponsor it. Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, helped in the upper chamber.

LINK: The has gotten more attention than the third grader who dreamt up the bill intended.

In the Senate, however, Peeler made his point by tacking on an amendment to ban any future bills like it:

Olivia’s Mom said her daughter would not agree with that: ”I can speak for her in saying that she does not want anyone to not have a chance in the future to do the same thing if they feel passionately about something that their state tries to offer and something that we South Carolinians can be proud of.”

The bill’s language now also contains an Old Testament reference slipped in by creationist lawmakers:

 ”Section 1-1-712A.   The Columbian Mammoth, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field, is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina and must be officially referred to as ‘the Columbian Mammoth’, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field.”

It’s up to the House now to accept the language as-is or send it to a compromise committee, ironically doing what Peeler was trying to avoid — devoting additional time to bills with lesser impact.

In the House, the original sponsor, Rep. Ridgeway told South Carolina Radio Network, “I can say this now, I never thought such a small bill would reach such mammoth proportions.”