Opinion

A pathetic session

What happened? This year's state legislative session began with high expectations for positive change on a variety of major issues and ended in stalemate, with lawmakers failing even to pass a budget for the new year before they adjourned Thursday.

Hope remains for a resolution to the dispute over reform of the Department of Transportation, which stalled budget talks as leaders in both the House and Senate refused to budge. They at least agreed to schedule a special session, June 19 through 21, to try to finish business, and another, June 28 through 29, to deal with potential vetoes by the governor.

If the House and Senate are unable to settle their differences, a stopgap funding bill would keep state government running at current spending levels. While no services would be cut, no more money would be available for any of the priorities in next year's budget.

One of the major goals of this session was DOT reform. In the end, however, that issue created the budgetary logjam. House negotiators wanted $40 million for road construction and maintenance, with half going to the state infrastructure bank and half to the Transportation Department. The amount eventually would grow to $200 million a year.

Senators, however, said the money for the infrastructure bank should go to road projects in the districts of House leaders. In the end, failing to reach an agreement, the House made good on its pledge not to vote on the budget until DOT reforms were in place.

Despite the posturing, these so-called reforms are small potatoes compared with plans envisioned early in the session to make the DOT part of the governor's cabinet and give him the authority to appoint its director. But lawmakers refused to loosen their control over the department, even though it will mean keeping an inefficient system that has ill-served the state and its residents.

Lawmakers also eked out tougher underage-drinking penalties just two hours before adjournment. The new law will allow police to trace who buys kegs for underage drinkers; allow minors to buy alcohol undercover during police stings; require repeat DUI offenders to install ignition interlock systems in their cars; and increase penalties for underage drinkers.

But that, too, falls well short of the ambitious DUI reforms anticipated at the beginning of the session.

Lawmakers did enact needed changes at the 11th hour in the workers' compensation law. But they failed to address in any way the predatory practices of the payday lending industry.

Also dead is a proposal to raise the state's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax. A proposed 30-cent hike in the tax would have made cigarettes less accessible to teens and would have provided $153 million in new revenues that could have been used for indigent health care and smoking cessation programs.

Lawmakers did pass a bill creating a 15-year replacement cycle for the state's school bus fleet -- which Gov. Sanford vetoed. That veto was overridden.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that would require insurance companies to provide coverage for children with autism -- which the governor vetoed. That veto was overridden by a unanimous vote.

Lawmakers also passed sensible regulations for children driving all-terrain vehicles -- which the governor vetoed. Unfortunately, that veto was not overridden.

Significant issues still pending that could be addressed in the special session include a plan to cut the sales tax on groceries by 1 percent to soften the 1 percent overall increase in the sales tax that went into effect June 1. Lawmakers also are considering a gratuitous income tax cut that would largely benefit higher-income residents.

All in all, that is a pathetic record of accomplishment for the session. Even more pathetic is the effort by some to paint the delay in passing the budget as a potential windfall. They argue that if the state continues to operate under last year's budget, the growth of government would be limited and most of this year's surplus would go unspent.

While that may be a good argument for the irrelevance of lawmakers who fail to take care of the state's most pressing business, it is a sad commentary on this legislative session. South Carolinians should not be satisfied with a do-nothing Legislature.

IN SUMMARY

After an ambitious start, accomplishments of this legislative session were slim.

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