Opinion

S.C. senators should break up logjam

It’s that time of year again: The time when everybody at the State House goes all doomsday over all those things that aren’t going to happen before the legislative session ends the first Thursday of June.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin has been wringing his hands for more than a month about how his domestic-violence-reform bill is dead. Most everybody gave up long ago on ethics reform. And now senators are saying they might not even have time to take up the road-funding bill.

Two points need to be made about all this:

▪ First, there’s a good chance that we’re watching grand masters play a chess game, where practically every statement about what’s doomed is designed to psych out supporters of some other piece of legislation. It’s a common practice, and in fact, to switch metaphors, we often see the whole line of dominoes tumble over in the final days or even hours of a session.

Of course, sometimes they don’t. As Sen. Larry Grooms told The Greenville News’ Tim Smith last week: “There are too many things that are now trying to get tied together. Trying to tie DOT funding in a deal regarding ethics and one involving criminal domestic violence. Now you have a bond bill and whose colleges get funded and which ones don’t. They are all starting to get tied together, which means you may have something and they all pass or it also is likely that nothing will pass.”

▪ Second, there is absolutely no excuse for the Legislature allowing itself to get so twisted up that people can be making these doomsday predictions with any credibility. And by the Legislature, I mean the Senate.

The Senate gets most of the blame not because the House doesn’t play the game too, but because the House can easily extricate itself from the games-playing. Not so the Senate. By their rules and customs, senators allow themselves to get stymied time and again by a single senator who’s determined to stymie them. And it’s not always obvious who that senator is.

The no-roads-debate comments came last week as the Senate voted to make an abortion bill its next priority, after a polluter-protection bill that has been its top priority since March 17.

The most vocal doomsayer was Sen. Brad Hutto, who warned his colleagues – or, perhaps more accurately, threatened – that if they prioritized that bill, “roads and bridges, ethics, body cameras, whatever else you might think would be a priority for this session, has just been pretty much shelved for the year.”

The conspiracy theory – which is entirely plausible but also quite plausibly nothing more than … a conspiracy theory– is that the Senate’s libertarian fringe pushed the abortion bill to the top of the agenda not so much to pass it as to block other bills. They knew Democrats such as Hutto would filibuster it, and that would prevent the Senate from getting to the roads bill, which contains tax increases that they adamantly oppose but fear they can’t defeat. It also would offer extra insurance that the mainstream Republicans don’t work out a deal with Democrats to revive the ethics bill, which the fringe libertarians hate because it would force their out-of-state and other special-interest supporters to identify themselves when they try to buy our elections.

Road-funding proponents (including some who voted to advance the abortion bill because they were afraid not to) are outraged that the libertarian fringe would let the roads bill wither in order to get to a bill that wouldn’t prevent more than 30 abortions a year — and probably significantly fewer, because of the exceptions in the legislation. Abortion opponents (including, ironically, these libertarians) say the numbers don’t matter, because nothing is more important than saving an innocent human life.

But the fact is that neither they nor anybody else at the State House actually believes that. If they did believe that, they’d be working around the clock to pass laws we know will slash the number of people who are slaughtered on our highways every year. Last year, there were more than 800 – and way more than 30 of them were completely innocent victims, who had the misfortune to be in the path of a drunk driver or a distracted driver, or whose death can be attributed to dangerous curves and too-narrow roads and poorly designed intersections and similar hazards that could be eliminated if we … fixed our roads.

Of course, the abortion bill wouldn’t be such a roadblock if the Senate would deal with the bills it puts on special order. If senators would stick around and debate those bills. If senators would let an honest opponent have his say and then sit him down and take a vote. But they won’t do that. In the month and a half since putting the polluter-protection bill in the priority position, the Senate has gotten to that bill – not necessarily debated it, but gotten that far on its daily agenda – four times. All the other days, senators adjourned before they even got to it.

Seriously.

Ultimately, it’s that refusal to debate bills and pass them or kill them that has had Sen. Martin upset for weeks now: He managed to get a decent domestic-violence bill through the Senate in late February, but then the House passed its own bill rather than the Senate bill. And the Senate is too dysfunctional to take up that legislation again in the dwindling days left in the legislative session. (And yes, the House should pass the Senate bill.)

It doesn’t have to be this way. Senators could, and should, sit out a tedious debate rather than adjourning every day because someone threatened to filibuster. And if the filibusterer’s bladder didn’t give out first, they could vote to shut down the filibuster after a few hours, or a few days, and move on to the next bill. But some Republicans have a bizarre philosophical objection to telling a colleague he can’t keep dilly-dallying, and Democrats have pretty much taken the position that with such small numbers they must preserve the power of the filibuster, even when it’s killing legislation that they support. And of course senators aren’t going to vote to end the filibuster when they oppose the bill being filibustered – or one that’s waiting in line behind it.

So, with four weeks and a day left, there you are: Unless or until someone puts together a deal that can deliver to pretty much every senator something he wants passed more than he wants anything else killed, we get nothing.

Cindi Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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