COLUMBIA, S.C. —South Carolina lawmakers start a new session on January 10th, so House and Senate leaders met with the media Thursday to talk about the top issues for the coming year.
Coming up with a long-term plan to fix state roads and bridges is again the top priority. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, told reporters the main reason lawmakers didn’t pass a comprehensive plan last year is because Gov. Nikki Haley promised to veto a gas tax increase that wasn’t tied to an even larger income tax cut. She’s been nominated to become ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, and, if she’s confirmed, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster will become governor. Sen. Sheheen says if McMaster also vows to veto a gas tax increase it’s unlikely lawmakers will be able to pass a long-term funding solution for roads, but if he says he’ll sign it, or at least consider it, there’s a good chance they will. South Carolina’s gas tax of 16.75 cents a gallon is the second-lowest in the nation and hasn’t been increased since 1987.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, says the House will consider a plan that would increase the gas tax by 2 cents a year over five years for a total of 10 cents. That would make it less of a burden for drivers and would allow the SCDOT to gradually ramp up its work.
Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, says the Senate plan would increase the gas tax by 4 cents a gallon for three years.
Another top priority will be shoring up the state’s pension system, which has an unfunded liability of more than $20 billion. Sen. Sheheen says the state will have to put more state money, meaning taxpayers’ dollars, into the system because state employees and teachers already pay into it a higher percentage of their pay than employees in most other states, and because there are now fewer state employees paying into the system.
Education funding will be another top issue, mainly how to address the 24-year-old lawsuit brought against the state by rural districts. The disagreement is how to address that lawsuit, with some lawmakers arguing the rural districts clearly need more money for better buildings and to attract and keep good teachers, while other lawmakers argue money is not necessarily the solution. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, points out that the federal government says South Carolina ranks 24th in spending per pupil, so the state doesn’t have to put more money into the system. He advocates for more school choice.
As the penalty phase of the Dylann Roof murder trial continues in Charleston, lawmakers are also talking about closing a loophole that allowed Roof to buy the gun he used to kill nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, has prefiled a bill to extend the time the FBI has to complete a background check before someone buys a gun. In Roof’s case, a gun dealer was legally allowed to sell him the gun after three days, even though the background check wasn’t finished. The FBI later determined that Roof should not have been allowed to buy the gun because of previous drug charges against him.
Sen. Kimpson says, “The only people that should fear an expanded background check bill and law should be people who are unfit to carry guns.”
But Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, a former State Law Enforcement Division agent, says the background check waiting period is a federal issue. “We don’t have anybody to enforce it after a three-day waiting period. SLED used to have the regulatory authority over it. They have no regulatory authority over gun sales now.”
Lawmakers also agreed that Rep. Chris Corley, R-Aiken, should resign. He was indicted this week on charges of domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature and pointing a firearm for allegedly hitting his wife and pointing a gun at her. House Speaker Jay Lucas suspended Corley after the indictment.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, says while Corley is innocent until proven guilty as far as the legal system goes, the people of his House district are not being represented now so he should resign. Rep. Simrill says if Corley doesn’t resign the House should move to expel him.
And Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, told the media that Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, has the votes in the Senate to become the next lieutenant governor if and when Lt. Gov. McMaster becomes governor. Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, is next in line to become lieutenant governor but he says he will not take the position.