State Rep. Tommy Pope made history Tuesday when his S.C. House colleagues made him the highest ranking legislator to ever serve from York County.
Pope, a York Republican, was elected as the new speaker pro tempore of the S.C. House of Representatives at the same time Pope’s predecessor Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, was elected the body’s new speaker.
The vote came as members met in Columbia for a two-day organizational meeting, prior to the beginning of a new session in January.
The primary job of speaker pro tempore, the House’s No. 2 position, is to serve as the stand-in for the speaker in floor debates. But Pope believes it also will give him a bird’s eye view of the legislative process.
“You can do as much as the speaker allows you to do, and as much as you’re willing to do,” Pope said.
Pope will no longer serve on the judicial committee, but once the ad-hoc committee on ethics reform he currently sits on finishes its legislative proposal, the new speaker pro tempore will be able to sit in on those meetings and any others he takes an interest in.
“I’m not tied to any one location,” he said. “When I was on judiciary, I might be oblivious to what’s happening on Ways and Means. Now I can be involved without overcommitting to any one thing. If ethics is in judiciary I can be there, but if something important comes up in education I can swing over there, whereas before I’d be required to stay in judiciary.”
That will be a benefit to the voters of District 47, Pope said, “because now I can be actively involved in this legislation as it’s being developed.”
Lucas: A new, brighter day
Lucas, elected to replace disgraced former Speaker Bobby Harrell as the House’s presiding officer, pledged Tuesday to lead in a way that encourages all members to speak up as they work together to change the public’s perception of the chamber.
Without mentioning Harrell by name, Lucas said the “events that transpired 83 days ago rocked the very foundation” of the S.C. House and tested people’s faith in government. He was referring to Harrell’s Sept. 10 indictment on nine misdemeanor charges. Harrell, speaker since 2005, pleaded guilty in October to six campaign spending violations and resigned.
“It’s going to be a new, brighter day,” Lucas said after being sworn in as speaker. “No more surprises. No more last-minute drafts. No more skeleton bills. The days of ‘Trust me, it’s fine’ are past.”
House members elected the 57-year-old Hartsville Republican as their leader without any objections. No vote was taken. Lucas, whose district includes part of Lancaster County, had been the lone candidate since two other Republicans vying to replace Harrell jointly withdrew Sept. 30.
Speaker pro tem since 2010, Lucas has been acting speaker since Harrell suspended himself a day after being indicted.
‘Like a new school year’
With new leadership coming this year in both the House and Senate – Sen. Hugh Leatherman of Florence was elected that body’s president pro tempore at the very end of last year’s session – legislators at the organizational meeting seemed excited about the new atmosphere at the capitol, Pope said.
“It’s like a new school year, and a new administration’s coming in,” Pope said. “The folks just coming in now are excited to see the difference that will make.”
Pope expects the new leadership will promote a more inclusive legislative process, encouraging more open discussion and participation from the average members. He also expects the House will tackle tougher issues, not just “politically expedient” ones.
Lucas promised to change the way the House conducts business, starting by insisting on punctuality. It is rare for legislative meetings to start on time. The House also generally allows members at least 30 minutes to register their attendance in the chamber each morning and after lunch before getting on to business.
“Punctuality should be a cardinal virtue,” said Lucas, first elected to the House in 1998. “It’s the people’s time. Let’s make sure we use it wisely.”
Lucas pledged to break from tradition and share power with his colleagues, saying so much shouldn’t amass into a single person. The speaker’s many powers include deciding who should sit on a wide range of public boards and committees statewide. As an example, Lucas proposed posting openings and letting members submit resumes of their qualified constituents.
‘All will have a voice’
He also promised to create more leadership opportunities within the House.
“All will have a voice in the collective well-being in the institution we love,” Lucas said.
Since Harrell’s indictment, study committees appointed by Lucas have met in the off-session to make recommendations on infrastructure funding, ethics reform and new House rules.
Lucas said the meetings showed the House is more than any one member or event.
“We have done much in 83 days,” he said. “We must complete the daunting task.”
The case against Harrell had been hanging over the House since February 2013, when Attorney General Alan Wilson directly accepted a complaint against him. Despite Harrell’s plea, a cloud of uncertainty remains. As part of his plea deal, Harrell agreed to assist any other investigation into the Legislature or other matters.
The State Law Enforcement Division released its December 2013 investigative report on Harrell last week, but 11 of the 42 pages were completely or mostly blacked out. In explaining the blackouts, SLED cited a provision in the public records law that exempts releasing information to be used in a future or likely law enforcement action.
It’s unclear how long Pope will stay at his new job. The three-term representative has already announced he plans to seek the GOP’s nomination for governor in 2018, which would eliminate him as a candidate to return to the House. But Pope didn’t focus on that possibility the day he received the pro tempore position. Instead, he paraphrased a verse from the Gospel of Matthew:
“Tomorrow will take care of itself,” he said. “Today, let’s just take care of today.”
Later Tuesday, the House approved 15 amendments to chamber rules. They include requiring roll call votes on bills as they advance from subcommittees and committees and requiring at least a 10-minute explanation of bills before they’re voted on in the chamber.
The House also capped a speaker’s tenure to 10 consecutive years, or five terms. Harrell was speaker for nine years. Only three speakers in South Carolina’s history held the position longer.