Politics & Government

Local legislators among those criticized by Haley

AP

As South Carolina lawmakers prepare to adjourn for the year in just a few weeks, members of the General Assembly are receiving report cards from Gov. Nikki Haley.

Haley last week posted selected voting records of House and Senate members on her personal website, www.nikkihaley.com, highlighting legislators’ stances for and against key issues she’s identified as part of her agenda.

“[W]e have had fighters standing with us on tax reform, ethics reform, debt, and legislative pay raises. They deserve praise,” the governor writes. “But we have also seen some legislators vote the wrong way or even walk away from taking votes on tough issues. And you deserve to know that, too.”

In the wake of her reelection last November, the governor is pushing for the Legislature to enact her preferred measures on transportation, ethics reform, and taxes and spending. But legislators say the governor’s publicly tough stance could prove costly to the very agenda she wants to see passed.

Like many local legislators, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, is a regular supporter of the governor. But he worries the governor’s rhetoric this session is turning some lawmakers against her.

“I wish that, instead of picking fights, before she makes these statements, we could try to come together and find a solution,” Norman said.

Haley has drawn her brightest red line on a plan to fix the state’s roads, where she opposes any increase in the state’s gas tax that doesn’t include her proposed reduction in income tax. It’s the issue where most legislators singled out online cast the “wrong” vote; a different roads bill passed the House with 87 affirmative votes, enough to override a gubernatorial veto.

“With the governor, sometimes it’s her way or the highway,” said Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York. “But we’ve got to get the highway paved first.”

“I’d hate to go home without finishing that.”

Most legislators agree fixing roads is the most pressing issue in the state capital, and also the most hotly divided.

In her State of the State address in January, Haley proposed making any increase in the state’s gas tax contingent on a reduction in the state’s income tax rate from 7 percent to 5. But even before that speech, state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, led a House committee drawing up plans to restructure how road issues are handled by the state Department of Transportation.

“We started work back in September,” Simrill said. “Our main focus was DOT reform first, and then how to fund it second.”

Simrill believes his group’s proposal, which ultimately got broad support in the House, addresses the governor’s concerns. It restructures the commission overseeing the DOT and makes funding available to counties that take some secondary roads off the state’s hands. It also includes its own reduction in income tax, what Simrill calls a $48 “rebate.”

The formula works like this: assuming someone drives 12,000 miles a year in a vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon, the driver would purchase 480 gallons of gas a year. If the gas tax is raised by 10 cents per gallon, the driver will pay $48 more a year. The rebate plan developed by Simrill’s commit reimburses the driver $48.

“And that will be set in the legislation, while the governor’s reduction is hinging on growth… it’s not an IOU,” Simrill said. “It’s adjusted down $48, whether you make $4 million or $40,000.”

The House roads plan will raise $400 million by increasing the gas tax while providing about $51 million total in income tax relief. Because of that, Haley calls the bill “one of the largest tax increases (in) South Carolina history.” The issue now rests in the Senate, which has a separate plan to raise $800 million for roads while eventually cutting $710 million in income tax.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said if the governor’s veto is still a possibility, any roads plan will have to pass the Senate by a similar veto-proof majority, or 31 votes. Democratic and Republican votes will be needed to reach that mark.

“The majority supports the (Republican) caucus plan... but we need Democratic support,” Hayes said. The House plan also doesn’t have that level of support in the Senate, Hayes said.

How much change can the road plan undergo and still pass the House, especially by such a large margin? Maybe not much.

“If it comes back substantially different, I think the veto will be sustained,” Norman said. “Would the House pass the Senate version? If I had to say, I would say ‘no.’”

Time is also a challenge. Whatever the General Assembly ultimately passes, the body must complete its work by the scheduled end of this year’s session on June 4. Otherwise any action will have to wait until the Legislature reconvenes in 2016.

“I’d hate to go home without finishing that,” Hayes said.

Is ethics reform dead?

While the road plan at least appears to be a legislative priority, one of the other items highlighted by the governor – reforming the ethics standards for state legislators – has hit a road block. The House has passed both an “omnibus” ethics bill and 14 smaller bills in hopes the Senate will pick up one or the other. But Hayes said the rest of the Senate calendar will be tied up in other matters.

“I am with the governor on ethics, but it’s not going to pass this year,” Hayes said. “With the time we have in the remaining weeks, the 20-week abortion bill and the roads bill are probably the only two we can get done.”

The main impediment to passage in the Senate remains who ultimately adjudicates cases against legislators. A Senate version of ethics reform would leave that decision in the hands of the two chambers’ ethics committees, made up of fellow lawmakers. But the proposal would create an independent investigative body – at least partly run by legislative appointees – that would conduct investigations and publish its findings, Hayes said.

While critics have seen the process of legislators policing legislators as too insular, Hayes said the committee process has never precluded outside investigations of lawmakers’ conduct, as shown by Attorney General Alan Wilson’s prosecution of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell last year.

Pope, who served on the committee that developed this session’s ethics proposals, believes an independent investigator is essential, but said the outline described by Hayes would likely be acceptable.

“If you accuse me, I would welcome an independent investigator,” Pope said, “because then you know there isn’t any home cooking.”

Ethics is likely to re-emerge as an issue in 2016, especially if the governor continues to push for it, but supporters of reform fear that becomes less likely the longer the issue lingers. A strong push for ethics reform fizzled in the last General Assembly as well, after another ethics bill passed the House only to fail to win the support of enough senators.

“Potentially next year it could pass, but that’s what I thought about this year,” Norman said. “The House passed a good bill, but coming together is a challenge.”

For her part, Haley is likely to continue to push legislators to support her agenda. At the state GOP convention two weeks ago, Haley praised the 17 Republicans who back her agenda 100 percent. Of the remaining 88 Republicans in the Legislature, Haley asked: “Where’s my army?”

But to Simrill, the governor still has supporters in the rest of the General Assembly.

“The House passed ethics reform, but because we didn’t vote her way on the gas tax, is that canceled out?” Simrill said. “Ronald Reagan said if you’re with me most of the time, you’re my friend. I want to focus on what unites us.”

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062

THE GOVERNOR’S SCORECARD:

Nikki Haley counts these local legislators as voting against her on the following issues, according to nikkihaley.com:

For a legislative pay raise:

▪  Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster

▪  Rep. MaryGail Douglas, D-Winnsboro

▪  Rep. Dennis Moss, R-Gaffney

▪  Rep. Steve Moss, R-Blacksburg

For raising the gas tax:

▪  Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill

▪  Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Winnsboro

▪  Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden

▪  Rep. Greg Delleny, R-Chester

▪  Rep. Raye Felder, R-Fort Mill

▪  Rep. MaryGail Douglas, D-Winnsboro

▪  Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill

▪  Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Darlington

▪  Rep. Dennis Moss, R-Gaffney

▪  Rep. Steve Moss, R-Blacksburg

▪  Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill

▪  Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster

▪  Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York

▪  Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill

Against ethics reform:

▪  Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Winnsboro

▪  Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden

For a $236 million bond bill (Senate committee vote):

▪  Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill

▪  Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden

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