Seven Crazy Things S.C. Legislators Would Do (If Given Half a Chance)

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Like Christmas gifts from an oblivious great aunt who feels compelled to give you something every year despite having little notion what might be appropriate, the bills prefiled by South Carolina’s legislators every December are never really what voters might actually want. Occasionally, they can be useful, but almost as often they are insulting to voters’ priorities.

That said, the first batch of prefiled bills — which lawmakers submit before the start of the session in January, and which are then sent to the appropriate committee — is not as nutty as some we have seen the General Assembly consider in recent years.

As of yet, there is no effort to convert South Carolina into a free state for outdated appliances (the South Carolina Incandescent Light Bulb Freedom Act, which currently lingers in the Senate), homegrown munitions (the South Carolina Firearms Freedom Act, also still in the Senate) or transvaginal meddling (like the laws passed by Virginia, North Carolina and other GOP-dominated legislatures requiring a woman to have a transvaginal ultrasound before getting an abortion). There is no outrageous middle finger to Uncle Sam — at least not a new one, as last year’s effort to nullify the Affordable Care Act is still in the Senate — only a long-shot attempt at amending the United States Constitution to put him in his place.

We don’t fully know what else might still be in store, though: The S.C. House of Representatives submitted their prefiled bills on Dec. 3, but the Senate’s were just starting to come in as Free
Times was going to press.

Before lawmakers can get to this year’s prefiled bills, however, they must address a few familiar bills that continue to loom over the legislative agenda from sessions past — ethics reform, road repairs, government restructuring and the aforementioned Obamacare nullification — so don’t expect to sport a new “Americans Stand With Israel” specialty state license plate by Easter. These things take time, and often just become mired in the process.

Therefore, the purpose of reviewing this eyebrow-raising legislation is more to give a glimpse into the thinking of a few proactive state representatives than it is to herald any coming legislative changes or even policy debates. But who knows? Sometimes these things catch fire.

Ransoming Cadavers

H. 4370 is awkward legislation for an awkward situation. It would allow funeral homes, funeral directors or embalmers to retain possession of a dead body until they have been paid in full for services provided.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John King (D-York), who runs a funeral home himself, this legislation is needed because of increasing competition between funeral homes that try to lure bereaved clients away from one another with last-minute sales pitches.

“It may not be prevalent in the Caucasian community, but in the African-American community it’s very apparent,” King explains. “In many communities, where you may see one or two Caucasian funeral homes, you may see five or six black funeral homes.”

At present, if a client decides to switch funeral services at the last minute, the law says the spurned service must hand over the body immediately, relinquishing its only collateral.
“No funeral home has an issue with doing that,” King says. “The issue is the funeral home wants to be compensated for the services they [already] have provided, and the only way to be compensated a lot of times is to make sure that you have those remains.”

Seriously, people with newly dead loved ones, don’t be deadbeats. Or creepy legislation like this might pass.

Taking the Feds Down a Peg

The attention-grabber of the bunch is part of a nationwide conservative effort, introduced here by Rep. Bill Taylor (R-Aiken), to hold a Convention of States with the purpose of amending the Constitution, as allowed by Article V of that founding document.

For Congress to call a Convention of States, 34 states must pass identical legislation, like Taylor’s H. 4372, entreating it to do so.

Taylor’s bill restricts the amendments that could be introduced at a convention to a conservative wish list: imposing fiscal restraints on the federal government, imposing term limits on Congress and ensuring that state rights trump federal authority.

One of Taylor’s counterparts in the Virginia General Assembly introduced a matching bill last week, and last weekend Taylor was scheduled to attend the Mt. Vernon Assembly, a gathering at George Washington’s home of like-minded state lawmakers from 32 states who hope to chart a path forward.

If a Convention of States were to occur, proposed amendments to the Constitution would need to be passed by a simple majority, with each participating state getting one vote. Then voters in each state would choose whether to ratify the proposed amendments. Thirty-eight states must ratify an amendment for it to be enshrined in the Constitution.

The consensus-building process appears daunting, almost reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street’s jazz-handed decision-making, but the nascent movement got a big boost last week from conservative luminary Glenn Beck, who gave Taylor his full-throated endorsement.

“I’ve been doing my homework on the Convention of States and asking people that I really trust, ‘Show me the downsides in this,’” Beck told his Internet audience. “We’re all really kind of coming to the conclusion that this is the time.”

Taylor agrees. Washington, D.C. is drunk on power and Americans are fed up, he says, especially in the wake of the government shutdown and Obamacare’s wretched rollout.

“I remind people all the time, ‘We states came together and created the federal government. We’re the parent; they’re the child,’” Taylor says. “Everybody over the years has gotten that turned upside down. We need to reassert that because that’s what’s going to make America great.”

Of course all that depends on whether you accept the conservative dogma that the Founders wrote the Constitution in order to limit the power of the federal government. Some scholars say it was the other way around — the Founders wanted to rein in the states — and cite passages like this excerpt from a letter John Jay wrote to George Washington: “What Powers should be granted to the Government so constituted is a Question which deserves much Thought — I think the more the better — the States retaining only so much as may be necessary for domestic Purposes; and all their principal Officers civil and military being commissioned and removeable by the national Governmt [sic].”

Whichever way the Article V effort unfolds, like the Civil War before it, South Carolina can claim a significant role in its opening salvo.

Was God Your Co-Pilot When You Got That DUI?

Breaking the law sometimes comes with harsh consequences, but, for juvenile drunk drivers, H. 4392 would add an exception to their driver license restrictions, allowing them to drive to and from church-related or church-sponsored activities.

Rep. Chip Huggins (R-Lexington), who identifies himself as Christian, says his bill is in direct response to constituent feedback and would apply to minors of all religions, cutting out only the backsliders and the godless. Once again, it pays to pray in South Carolina.

Parrotheads, Coon Hunters & the Israeli Defense Force

H. 4383, introduced by Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Horry), would add yet another specialty license tag to the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles’ immense pantheon of puzzling plates. This one would read, “Americans Stand With Israel,” placing the Jewish state among the expansive list of honorees that includes Jimmy Buffett fans, coon hunters, pro-lifers and Boykin spaniels.

By the way, does anyone else remember when Ronald Reagan called for a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion and scolded Israel for military aggressions against its Arab neighbors?

Just saying.

Ethics Training

It sounds a little incredible to some of us observers — the idea that our state lawmakers might not be ethically incorrigible, that they might actually be capable of learning to behave themselves if only we could provide them with the appropriate resources.

After all, the House Ethics Committee is currently investigating whether Rep. Harold Mitchell (D-Spartanburg) illegally spent campaign funds on himself and whether Rep. Bill Chumley (R-Spartanburg) violated ethics laws by using the state plane to fly in a conservative pundit to promote one of his bills. Meanwhile, Rep. Stephen Goldfinch is facing federal charges for mislabeling stem cells, and SLED has just delivered its investigation findings on House Speaker Rep. Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston), who is accused of illegally dipping into his own campaign account and abusing his office for personal gain, to Attorney General Alan Wilson.

But Rep. Joshua Putnam (R-Anderson) believes that many ethics violations are born of ignorance and so has put forth H. 4373, which would require that all state and local officials, including legislators, be provided with educational materials and tutelage, so that they may better abide by state ethics laws.

Think of it as a hand up, not a handout, as Republicans like to say while they cut food stamps.

“I tried to learn all the ethics laws. I talked to other House members and what I’ve found, one House member will say this is the proper way to do something, then I’ll find out a year later that it really wasn’t,” Putnam says. “There needs to be education, but the biggest thing is I don’t want to have a legislator who says, ‘Well, I didn’t know.’”

School Bus Ads

South Carolina is home to the oldest operating school bus fleet in the nation, with the average age being 15.5 years old. Legislators perennially fail to make money available to replace to them, often while spending beaucoup cash on mostly symbolic court fights against the federal government. So Rep. Putnam, a young man on a mission, has introduced H. 4369 in hopes of generating sufficient revenue to replace the rust buckets.

Ten states already sell exterior advertising space on their school buses, and seven even inflict interior advertising on their young charges, so we wouldn’t be going out on a limb here. That said, it’s pitiful how South Carolina cannot fix its tax code so as to avoid these jerry-rigged revenue schemes and procure buses like a well-run state would.

Get Out the Way

Putnam’s H. 4391 is like an early Christmas gift for the road-raging leadfoots among us, aimed at punishing drivers who linger in the left lane, backing up our multilane highways and causing serious accidents. This bill would levy two points against the driving record of those caught traveling at least 5 mph less than the posted speed limit in the far left lane. As for the rest of us doing 85 (or 110) mph in the 70 mph zone, carry on.

Whether you’re for or against the bills you’ve read about here, don’t get too excited either way. No matter how frequently we hear South Carolina’s elected officials toss around the phrase “run government like a business,” there’s nothing efficient about what happens under the dome at Gervais and Main. Plus, if the process comes close to working — a big if, we know — it’ll weed out some of the nuttier ideas covered here to concentrate on the more pressing matters we’ll be covering when the session starts in January. But rest assured, if it looks like legislators are about to implement something truly outrageous — like, say, establishing a Baptist theocracy — we’ll let you know.

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