A roundup of what’s making news in South Carolina state government
Wednesday was an eventful day in the South Carolina Senate as lawmakers rushed to pass dozens of last-minute bills with only two days remaining in the Statehouse’s regular session.
First, the Senate’s de facto leader, President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, resigned his post Wednesday afternoon to avoid becoming lieutenant governor. Current Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell indicated earlier this week that he would step down on Thursday to become president at the College of Charleston.
The announcement came as a surprise (McConnell had earlier indicated he would wait until the Senate adjourns for the year in the middle of June). McConnell said he wanted to avoid a potential conflict of interest on a College of Charleston bill set to be debated in the chamber.
Should his office become vacant, the state constitution requires the president pro tem leave his own position to become lieutenant governor. The problem? Courson doesn’t want to depart a Senate seat he’s held for nearly 30 years just to sit in the largely-ceremonial Lieutenant Governor’s Office for five months before Election Day. So he resigned from his current leadership position to avoid the possibility. In the meantime, he angrily called on Gov. Nikki Haley to ask that McConnell stay in the post for the rest of the year.
Afterwards, Courson told reporters that he had heard rumors of a potential lawsuit forcing him to take the Lt. Gov’s office. A few hours later, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, claimed in a very charged speech that McConnell had set Courson up after Courson’s refusal to support a bill establishing College of Charleston as a research university.
“What in the world can be so important for somebody to play that kind of trick?” Peeler said. “When we hung that portrait (of McConnell in the Senate), I praised that man. But (after) the actions of the last two weeks, I won’t feel the same.”
Peeler’s comments were surprisingly jarring and personal towards his fellow Republican, both of whom have served together in the Senate for over 30 years.
Shortly after the debate, McConnell told the Charleston Post & Courier that he is considering possibly delaying his resignation as lawmakers try to sort out the problem. He also disputed that his resignation’s timing had anything to do with politics. He said he hoped someone would be willing to take the lieutenant governor’s position.
— Peeler’s remarks set off another hour of debate on the College of Charleston bill. Supporters say it’s necessary to offer post-graduate degrees for the Lowcountry’s growing information technology and specialized manufacturing industries. But Peeler, Courson, and others questioned why the proposal is being pushed quickly without going through the usual vetting process. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, threatened to propose several hundred amendments in a filibuster attempt. The measure, which allows College of Charleston to expand its research offerings through a new entity known as the “University of Charleston,” looks unlikely to pass with only a day remaining.
— A statewide ban on texting while driving is now headed to Gov. Haley after overwhelming votes in the House and Senate Wednesday. The measure only targets texting — cell phone use would still be allowed. Under the proposed law, offenders will receive a $25 fine but no penalty points on their license. A driver could still text if their vehicle is parked or completely stopped at a traffic light or stop sign. Haley has not yet publicly indicated if she will sign off on the ban, although lawmakers expect her support.
— Both the House and Senate also sent a proposed budget to the governor on Wednesday. Next year’s spending plan includes more money for four-year-old kindergarten in high-poverty districts, a two percent pay raise for state employees, and additional money for legislators to use as an allowance. Most of the opposition in both chambers came from Republicans who said they were unhappy with millions in “pork” projects that were included late in the process by the Senate.
— Meanwhile lawmakers say they have reached a compromise on an ethics reform proposal, although it does not go as far as the governor wanted. The Associated Press reports a joint House and Senate committee came to an agreement Wednesday to drop a 12-person independent commission that would investigate alleged ethics violations — one of Haley’s top priorities. Senators had insisted the constitution requires the House and Senate ethics committees to investigate their own. Both sides did agree to require lawmakers to disclose their sources of income and banned legislators from creating leadership political action committees.