S.C. House speaker criticized for committee shake-ups

COLUMBIA -- Two Republican House members say GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell ousted them from committees in reprisal for their push to increase on-the-record voting and open criticism of practices in the lower chamber.

But the Charleston Republican, who won his second full term leading the GOP-dominated chamber Tuesday, said there's nothing to complaints from Reps. Nikki Haley and Nathan Ballentine.

"I think everything that I did in these appointments was appropriate," Harrell said.

"What he's doing is a complete power play," said Ballentine Wednesday after being booted from the House's Education Committee to the relative backwater of the Democrat-controlled Medical, Military and Municipal Affairs Committee. "Here's what happens if you try to step out on my watch."

Ballentine and Haley had allied with Gov. Mark Sanford, a frequent Harrell critic, to push for more on-the-record voting.

Harrell derided the effort, noting the House does plenty on the record already. When Sanford, Ballentine and Haley appeared at news conferences promoting the idea, Harrell said he supported more roll-call voting, but more was needed than "just pandering to voters and grabbing for headlines."

"House leadership is sending a message: If you open your mouth, you're going to get your head chopped off," Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said.

Haley said she crossed Harrell this year by bucking his efforts to scuttle tougher payday lending regulation and irked him again by questioning House practices that allowed approval of a retirement pay increase for legislators on a voice vote earlier this year.

Haley started the week campaigning to be the first chairwoman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, a prestigious committee because it handles business legislation, but dropped her bid Monday night.

On Tuesday, she tried to head off Harrell-backed rules on roll-call voting she said didn't go far enough. On Wednesday, Harrell appointed her to the LCI committee, but then hours later had his lawyer deliver a letter booting her to the Education Committee.

"I went against the speaker on something he was publicly against: votes on the record. And I was not just demoted, but he attempted to embarrass me and humiliate me in the process," Haley said. "What he proved in these last two days is that he is a speaker who is more concerned about his personal image than he is about policy in this state."

Besides, Harrell said, the "Education Committee is not a demotion. Education is the most important issue facing South Carolina."

Harrell said Haley needed to move because of the chairman's race. "When you have two people who run for chairman, sometimes it's easier for one or both of them if they aren't on the same committee after the chairman's race is over."