SC lawmakers rush to get bills across finish line as legislative session comes to a close

Published: May. 13, 2022 at 7:51 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Before the clock struck 5 p.m. in Columbia on Thursday, when desks were cleared, hugs were shared, and end-of-session selfies were snapped, the South Carolina State House was a flurry of activity as lawmakers worked until the final minutes of the 2022 regular legislative session to tie up as many loose ends as they could.

With a few exceptions, including the budget and redistricting legislation, any bill that had not passed both chambers by that point died for the year, needing to be refiled and reintroduced at the start of next year.

A final-week compromise to expand early, in-person voting and restrict mail-in voting made it through both chambers after an earlier disagreement concerning oversight of the State Election Commission had threatened the entire bill.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who backed the bill’s passage, signed it into law Friday.

Other bills are on their way to the governor’s desk, including the “Save Women’s Sports Act” — requiring athletes to compete based on the gender they were assigned at birth and prohibiting transgender girls and women from competing and girls’ and women’s sports — and a bill that would allow women to obtain birth control directly from pharmacists without a doctor’s prescription.

Both the House and the Senate also passed bills to settle a state Supreme Court ruling regarding the sex offender registry and to create a voucher-like “Education Scholarship Account” program, which would give certain families state dollars to send their kids to private schools.

But the chambers will still need to negotiate a final version of those bills to send to the governor.

“The Education Scholarship Accounts, that’s something South Carolina’s been talking about for a number of years, but it’s never actually gone over the finish line; that’s a big deal,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, told reporters after the session ended.

Both chambers also agreed to substantial income tax cuts, but the details on just how large of cuts and if they will include any direct rebates to tax filers will be worked out in the coming weeks as they come to a compromise on the budget.

On the flip side, bills that did not make it across the finish line this year would have to start the legislative process over at the beginning of next year, including public hearings, considerations in committees, and debate and passage in each body.

This week, 11th-hour efforts fell short to resurrect medical marijuana legalization — a procedural ruling regarding taxation in the House a week before had stripped its best chance at being passed this session — and to increase the penalties for violent crimes determined to be hate crimes, leaving South Carolina as one of just two states without such legislation.

Massey said he expects both efforts to return in 2023.

“The people of South Carolina deserve a vote on that bill, and the fact that it got derailed by a ruling is unfortunate, but we’ll correct the issues that led to that, and we’ll get an up-or-down vote on that next year,” Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D – Orangeburg, said of the medical cannabis legislation.

The clock also ran out before the Senate could come to an agreement on a bill to restructure the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, while two healthcare-related debates in the House — one to split DHEC and overhaul other state agencies, and another to repeal the certificate of need process through which hospitals can be built and expanded — never got started, killing those bills for this year.

“Overall, I think it was a successful year,” Massey said. “I’m glad we finished strong, and I’m glad we get a little break for a while.”

But the General Assembly will not get too much of a break.

Members will return to the State House in mid-June to tackle unfinished business, including finalizing the budget and handling any vetoes from the governor.

They could be called back later in the summer or fall to respond to an anticipated ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on abortion. A leaked draft opinion suggested a majority of justices were prepared to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, potentially opening the door for states to pass tighter restrictions or full bans on abortions.

Lawmakers could also be summoned to Columbia to handle ongoing legislation related to redistricting as some of South Carolina’s new voting lines are currently being challenged in court.

The close of this year’s legislative session in South Carolina also wrapped up the first two-year lawmaking period under expanded Republican majorities at the State House.

South Carolina Republican Party Chair Drew McKissick said that led to a productive session for passing conservative legislation, such as last year’s “Fetal Heartbeat Law,” which restricts most abortions after around six weeks but is currently blocked by courts, and the “Open Carry with Training Act,” along with this year’s bipartisan-backed election reform bill.

In the 2020 election, when Republicans already had a sizable advantage over Democrats in both chambers, they flipped five total seats: two in the House and three in the Senate, which only has 46 seats total.

“Having 30 members of the state Senate makes it possible for Republicans to overcome a potential Democrat filibuster, so it makes a bigger difference in the Senate than it necessarily in the House, but we’re always glad to see more Republicans join the caucus on either side of the legislature,” McKissick said.

This November, every House seat is up for grabs, while senators won’t face voters until 2024.

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