Governor Nikki Haley had few surprises in her annual State of the State address Wednesday, focusing on job creation and pro-business legislation. Haley also made fixing the state’s retirement system a priority this year.
— The Senate finally began the laborious process of shifting agencies and divisions out of the massive Budget and Control Board Wednesday as it took up a bill creating the Department of Administration. While many of the state’s IT, maintenance, and human resources would move to the new Cabinet agency, Senators plan to transfer the State Budget Office and Office of Research and Statistics under the legislature’s control.
The bill would create three more panels to replace the five-member Budget and Control Board after 2013. The new Public Employee Benefit Agency would make the major decisions on employee health insurance and retirement system matters. The Rural Infrastructure Authority (created by the Legislature in 2010) would oversee funds meant for developing water and sewer systems in rural South Carolina. Meanwhile, the new State Financial Affairs Committee would approve any bonds issued by the state.
— The House passed several bills, most notably a “three-strike” law for wastewater utilities that consistently struggle with spills and overflows. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for her signature.
— A Senate medical subcommittee advanced the “Freedom of Conscience” bill Wednesday. The bill by Rep. Greg Delleney (R-Chester) passed the House last year. It would protect nurses and other medical professionals from performing embryonic procedures or euthanasia if it goes against their beliefs. Opponents fear the bill gives employees too much leeway and hurts patients’ rights.
— A House committee is looking to possibly ease up on its proposed reforms for South Carolina’s state employee pension system. Last month, the ad hoc committee proposed requiring employees to work for 30 years (up from 28 years) and be at least 62 when they retired (previously no age limit) in order to collect full benefits. However, lawmakers backed up and ordered a consultant Wednesday to calculate the effect if those rules only covered new hires.
— A Senate Labor subcommittee moved forward with legislation that would cut back on seasonal workers’ jobless benefits. Under the bill by Sen. Kevin Bryant (R-Anderson), those workers could only collect unemployment insurance during the normal seasonal work period. They would also not be able to receive more than one-third of their normal wages. The bill now heads to the full committee.
— Lawmakers are about to pass legislation creating 16 more specialty license plates, even though its sponsor admits there are too many confusing plates already.
The Legislature’s Joint Other Funds Committee will hear from Commission on Higher Education officials requesting permission to use $445,000 in lottery funds for an expansion of Clemson University’s “Intelligent River” program. The money would be used to match a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant.
— The Medical Affairs Committee will consider a bill by Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-Gaffney) that would give DHEC more power to regulate drugs. Right now, only the Legislature has the ability to ban any substances when it’s in session. The issue cropped up when health officials wanted to ban synthetic marijuana and “bath salts” last fall, but lacked the means to do so. Many fear the General Assembly cannot respond fast enough as new compounds pop up. The bill lists over 100 chemicals that could be regulated.
— A Judiciary panel will hear testimony on a bill by Rep. Eddie Tallon (R-Spartanburg) that would prohibit unemployment benefits for a person who failed a drug test while applying for job. The company that administered the test could notify the state Department of Employment and Workforce about the failed test if the person was receiving jobless benefits.
— Keeping with the theme of jobless benefits, a Business & Commerce subcommittee will hear testimony on a bill by Rep. Bill Sandifer (R-Oconee) that would impose a steep fine on those who fraudulently obtain the benefits. The proposed bill calls for a fine of up to $5,000 for a first offense, $10,000 for a second offense, and $15,000 for the third. Current law has a maximum $100 fine.
— The Ways & Means Committee will hear budget requests from several agencies Thursday, including the state Department of Education, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Health and Human Services.