State lawmakers rushed Thursday, on the last day of the legislative session, to pass bills stripping unemployment benefits from people fired for misconduct and giving tax credits to tire manufacturers.
But as the clock struck 5 p.m. — the deadline this year for any bill not in a House-Senate conference committee — it signaled the end of one of the session’s most controversial bills: school choice.
For the first time since efforts started in 2004, a school-choice bill passed the House of Representatives this year. The bill was expected to die quickly in the Senate, but it surprised some by making it through the Senate Finance Committee and onto the Senate floor.
But opponents never let the bill come up for debate, and it died.
“We made some great strides in advancing the issue,” said state Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, the bill’s primary sponsor.
The bill would have given parents a $4,000 tax deduction if they sent their children to private schools, a $2,000 tax deduction if they home-schooled their children and a $1,000 tax deduction if they transferred their child from one public school to another.
The proposal also would have given businesses and individuals a dollar-for-dollar tax credit if they contributed to organizations that have private school scholarships to low-income or handicapped students.
State economists estimated the bill would have cut the state’s revenues by $36.7 million a year. Opponents said it was akin to using public money to pay for private schools.
“The best thing for the state and the best thing for public schools would be to forgo the debate altogether and focus on things that are going to improve our public schools,” said Scott Price, general counsel of the S.C. School Boards Association.
Supporters will have to start over in January when lawmakers return to Columbia for the start of a new two-year legislative session. Some House supporters, including state Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, said Thursday that they want the Senate take the lead next year.
“The House has done their work. It is now the Senate’s responsibility,” Allison said.
However, that’s unlikely to happen, according to state Sen. John Scott, D-Richland. “It’s always the question — not whether people like (school choice) or not — ... whether or not the state can actually afford to do it,” Scott said. “I’ve raised that question over and over again. How do we pay for it?”
While Thursday marked the end of the official legislative session, lawmakers still have much work to do.
They will return for a special session June 19 to finish work on the state’s $6.7 billion general fund budget. Also looming are sweeping changes to the state’s $25 billion retirement fund that will affect nearly 500,000 South Carolinians.
Other bills that died Thursday include:
• A bill that would have eliminated research charges for public-records requests and opened the state email accounts of lawmakers to the public. Scott blocked the bill, saying he did not know what the bill would do and the Senate needed more time to study it.
• A bill that regulate whether local governments can offer broadband Internet access. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill at the 5 p.m. deadline, but it did not make it over to the House in time for that body to act. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said lawmakers could vote on the bill when they return to Columbia June 19 to finish the state budget. But it would require a two-thirds vote from both bodies.
Bills that lawmakers passed Thursday included proposals:
• To strip unemployment benefits from employees who are fired for misconduct. If an employee is fired for cause, the Department of Employment and Workforce would have discretion over whether that employee received unemployment benefits.
• To give tax breaks to tire manufacturers, a nod to the state’s growing tire industry. In Sumter alone, the tax credits would cost taxpayers $118 million over 10 years but yield $2.8 billion in investment, according to an analysis by the S.C. Commerce Department.
Retiring state Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, negotiated the deal in the Senate. “I like to roll out on a victory,” he said.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.