Commentary

A single senator can make big trouble

May 29, 2014 

If you don’t think that one person can make a real difference, you haven’t been observing the South Carolina Legislature. In South Carolina, one single senator can completely tie the Legislature in knots and nullify the work of his fellow lawmakers.

That’s real power. And it took real lack of foresight and bad judgment to come up with a system like this.

We have a prime example this week. The Legislature was well on its way to passing a bill that would have required South Carolina schools to teach medically accurate information in sex education classes and inform parents what is being taught.

The bill passed the House 57-53 last month. On Wednesday, a similar measure passed the Senate Education Committee by a 9-2 vote,

But before the bill could be considered by the full Senate, it was blocked by a single senator, Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican. As is his privilege under the rules of the Senate, he placed a procedural hold on its advancement to the Senate floor.

With less than a week left before the Legislature adjourns, the bill is effectively dead.

There should be nothing remotely controversial about this bill. Why would anyone object to providing students with medically accurate information in their sex-ed classes?

What’s the alternative? Babies are delivered by storks?

The bill also would have withheld 1 percent of the school districts’ state funding until they filed reports on what information is taught and in which grades in their districts. Although the districts already are required by a 1988 law to do that, many don’t bother.

Significantly, the bill also made no changes in the current requirement that abstinence until marriage must be strongly emphasized. So the abstinence-only contingent couldn’t complain that this was an effort to downplay the advice to wait until after you’re married to have sex.

Why did Fair decide to block such a sensible, even-handed bill? He said teen pregnancies are on the decline without it, so it isn’t needed.

“Fewer teen pregnancies are fewer teen pregnancies,” Fair said.

Indeed, the rate of teen pregnancy is decreasing, and that’s good news. In 1991, more than 9,500 teens in South Carolina ages 15 to 19 – or 73 teens per 1,000 – got pregnant, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. By 2012, the latest year available, the number had dropped to 5,500 teens, for a rate of 37 per 1,000.

But the rate still is too high. South Carolina still has the 11th highest teen birth rate in the nation, which leaves lots of room for improvement.

It seems impossible that any sensible person would oppose providing medically accurate information to our children in sex education courses. Then again, Fair has long been an outspoken advocate of the ignorance agenda.

He is anti-evolution and believes that if natural selection is taught in the classroom, intelligent design, also known as creationism, also should be included. Unfortunately, as a member of the state’s Education Oversight Committee, he is in a position to impose his ideas on all students.

Fair also was a prominent critic of the reading programs at two state colleges that included books about gays and lesbians. He said that a satirical play put on at USC Upstate, “How to Become a Lesbian in 10 Days of Less,” was an attempt to recruit lesbians.

He also says man-made climate change is a hoax, and has fought teaching it in the classroom.

Fine. If the voters of his district know he supports those ideas and keep re-electing him anyway, so be it.

But why does the state of South Carolina give him or any other senator or House member the ability to unilaterally kill bills just because he or she gets the urge? If the Legislature ever seriously considers improving the way it operates, ditching this rule should be a top priority.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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