South Carolina

Road plan doubtful in last days of S.C. Legislature

The state Senate still could make South Carolina safe for Uber.

But making the state’s roads safe for the ride-sharing company?

Maybe next year.

With three days to go, that sums up the 2015 legislative session.

While some issues have been resolved or could be by the session’s end Thursday, attempts to address larger concerns have collapsed, largely in the state Senate.

There have been successes.

A proposal to toughen penalties against offenders convicted of domestic violence, passed by the House and Senate, now is before Gov. Nikki Haley. Lawmakers also ousted the board of trustees at S.C. State University in an attempt to get that school out from under more than $20 million in debt.

However, the two issues identified as the session’s top priorities in January — coming up with a long-term plan to pay to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, and ethics reform, a top priority of Haley for two years running — both stalled in the Senate.

But, like a student retaking a class, lawmakers will get one more shot at addressing key concerns, including the state’s roads, when they return next year, the second of a two-year session.

Other proposals yet could pass as the session draws to its official end.

For example, the GOP-dominated House and Republican-majority-but-fractured state Senate are close to agreeing on a bill to ban abortions at 20 weeks — a GOP priority — and a bill to allow Uber to continue to operate.

A look at what the Legislature has accomplished, punted and what it yet could do in the regular session’s final three days.

Accomplishments

Toughening domestic-violence laws. A domestic-violence bill that doubles prison time for offenders to as long as 20 years and can ban batterers from possessing guns for life is headed to Gov. Haley's desk.

The measure — an attempt to address why South Carolina routinely ranks among the nation’s worst in the number of women killed by men — also includes educating middle schoolers about abuse prevention, and requiring judges to have police reports on abuse allegations and the criminal records of suspects before they set bond for accused abusers.

Saving S.C. State. The S.C. State University board was fired and replaced with interim trustees who are working to erase a $20 million deficit and save the accreditation of the state's only historically black public college. The unprecedented move by lawmakers came after the school's deficit continued to rise despite staffing and spending cuts.

The temporary board, in place until mid-2018 and led by former state Commerce secretary Charlie Way, meets for a second time Tuesday.

Maybe next year

Repairing roads. A filibuster by state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, could drive through Thursday, the last day of the regular session, stalling efforts to come up with a long-term plan to fix the state’s crumbling roads

Four major proposals have been offered this year, all including a gas-tax increase, which Davis and a handful of libertarian state senators object to as unnecessary.

The plans?

▪  During her January State of the State address, Republican Haley surprised legislators by endorsing a 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike, a move she previously had promised to veto. But, in a move that Democrats say doomed the issue, Haley also insisted any gas-tax hike be tied to a much larger cut in the state’s income taxes. She also demanded the governor be given control of the Transportation Department, which she and Davis contend is a den of abusive legislative micromanaging and wasteful spending.

▪  In April, the S.C. House passed a plan, 87-20, to increase the gas tax by 10 cents and hike the cap on the sales tax on vehicles to $500 from $300. In a bid to placate Haley, that plan also included a small income tax cut, averaging $48, and giving the governor control of the Transportation Department.

▪  The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, next adopted a proposal that only raised taxes — including increasing the gas tax by 12 cents, doubling the cost of a 10-year driver’s license to $50 and increasing the cap on the state’s sales tax on vehicles to $600.

▪  In an effort to compromise with fellow Republican Haley, Senate Republicans planned to amend the Senate Finance Committee plan to include a 1 percentage point cut in the state’s income tax rates, saving the highest earning South Carolinians $60,000 a year, and giving the governor control of the Transportation Department.

Then, the chances of passing a road plans this year collapsed.

Senators could not agree whether any new money was needed or how much more money was needed — $1.5 billion a year? $1 billion? $300 million?

The Senate’s libertarian-leaning Republicans, led by Davis, insist there is enough money already in the state budget if legislators just would reorder their spending priorities and agree to use state surpluses — like the $400 million one certified Friday — on roads.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats do not want any income tax cut, arguing it is a windfall to the wealthy while 1 million South Carolinians — who do not make enough to pay income taxes — would be stuck with only higher gas taxes.

The Senate’s mainstream Republicans are paralyzed, unable to force a vote in the body, where any one senator effectively can bring all action to a halt.

Ethics reform. A top priority of Haley, ethics reform died in the Senate for the second straight year.

Supporters also failed to generate any interest in other proposed changes, including requiring politicians to declare their private-sector employers.

The House passed several ethics bills that could be revived next year – the final year of the two-year legislative cycle. But with senators, including some Senate leaders, unwilling to agree — again — on whether legislators should give up some control over investigating themselves, revival could be futile.

Yet to be decided

The budget for the state’s fiscal year that starts July 1. Lawmakers have yet to set the state’s general fund budget, the only thing they are required to do each year.

Last week, the House and Senate set the stage for a six-member conference committee to cut a deal.

Then, Friday, the state Board of Economic Advisers approved adding a $400 million surplus to the budget. Some lawmakers want all that money to go to roads. Others want some of the money used to restore funding to agencies cut during the Great Recession, including giving more than $200 million to colleges and technical schools. Haley wants the money used for roads, tax cuts or to pay off state debt.

Aware no agreement may be possible, legislators have prepared a bailout plan. They could opt to continue state spending at current levels after July 1.

Restricting abortion. A ban on abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy — a Republican priority — has passed both chambers.

But the Senate added exceptions for rape and incest. The House and pro-life advocates did not want any exemptions, except for a threat to the mother's life.

To pass a 20-week ban this year, the sides will have to move quickly this week.

A resolution allowing the General Assembly to meet in mid-June, after the last scheduled day of the session, permits lawmakers to weigh bills assigned to conference committees. But the abortion bill — which critics say is unconstitutional since federal law allows abortions at 24 weeks — stills needs to take one more round trip across the State House lobby before being assigned to a conference committee.

Senate Democrats could stand in the way.

Letting Uber live. A bill allowing online ride-sharing service Uber to operate in South Carolina has stalled in the Senate despite receiving preliminary approval less than two weeks ago.

Three senators have objected to the bill, delaying a final vote.

Last week, Haley sent a letter to senators, asking them to pass the bill, already approved by the House. Without the bill, Uber faces a challenge from state regulators to continue its competition with taxi companies.

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