Common Cause director John Crangle doesn’t expect ethics reform to pass this year.
Photo by Sean Rayford
The current legislative session, which began in January, ends in June. Lawmakers in the 124-member House and 46-member Senate have been hashing out bills for four months. Anything that hasn’t passed one body and crossed over to the other by now is essentially dead.
Here’s a look at the fate of some legislation we’ve reported on throughout the session.
Medicaid expansion: South Carolina is one of several states to opt out of a federal program to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Under expansion, the feds would pay 100 percent of the cost for the first three years (and 90 percent after that) to add thousands to the state’s Medicaid rolls. Proponents said expansion would ensure health care coverage for the state’s poor, including children, the homeless and veterans, and would create thousands of jobs. They also say that if South Carolina rejects expansion, it is essentially sending tax dollars to states that accept it. Opponents said expansion would be a federal and state budget buster. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has vowed to oppose expansion at any cost.
Democrats tried to pass a bill accepting the expansion for three years; it failed. The only hope it has now would likely come by an amendment to the state budget in the form of a one-year proviso.
“That’s the only way possible right now, and it’s a long shot,” says Senate Democratic Caucus director Phil Bailey.
Freedom of Information Act reform: For the second time, a bill to strengthen the state’s open records laws failed. Aiken GOP Rep. Bill Taylor, a former journalist, wrote a bill that would make public entities respond to requests faster, cut down on costs to citizens and would allow local magistrates to rule on citizen complaints of open records violations.
The bill failed because lawmakers couldn’t stomach an amendment from Lexington GOP Rep. Rick Quinn that would strip an exemption legislators have from the law. “I think it’s unfortunate the people of South Carolina have to wait another year for any meaningful reform,” state Press Association director Bill Rogers told Free Times. He added that because of the bill’s failure, citizens will have to wait longer for public records and if they don’t get them will have to hire a lawyer to sue.
Gambling: Gov. Haley signed a bill into law this year clearing up loopholes in the state’s video gambling laws. The bill cuts out an exemption for so-called sweepstake machines, a new iteration of video poker. Meanwhile, lawmakers passed a measure allowing voters to decide in next year’s statewide election whether schools, churches and nonprofits can hold legal raffles. The state lottery is the only currently legal raffle in South Carolina.
False Claims Act/whistleblower bill: A new story about fraud and embezzlement of public funds hits the papers or TV seemingly every week in South Carolina, and some lawmakers believe a False Claims Act could combat it by incentivizing citizens to blow the whistle on public corruption. Legislation to do so — essentially awarding money to people who sniff out fraud — was struck from an ethics bill passed by the House. But it could be added to an omnibus ethics bill in the Senate, according to John Crangle of Common Cause, a longtime advocate for such legislation.
Ethics reform: After a botched effort to pass a hastily cobbled together and roundly denounced ethics bill at the last minute before May 1 (largely in secret), Republican leaders in the House were forced by media and public policy groups to clean up their act — literally. So they added a 38-page amendment to a bill sent to the Senate that would abolish leadership PACs, make lawmakers disclose all sources of income, and create a Public Integrity Unit in the attorney general’s office to streamline the handling of ethics investigations.
Critics such as the South Carolina Policy Council and state League of Women Voters say the bill still doesn’t enact needed reform. “Unless the Senate offers substantive changes, it will be business as usual for S.C. politicians,” respective presidents Ashley Landess and Barbara Zia wrote in a recent editorial. That’s likely to happen, say sources familiar with a coalition of senators serious about reform. But it might not happen this year.
Sex ed reform: Lawmakers this year began work on updating the state’s sexual education laws for the first time in 25 years. It’s not something likely to happen this year, as a bill is still working its way through committee after the May 1 crossover date. “Our goal is to get it as far as we can in the House this session and pick it back up in January,” says supporter Emma Davidson of Tell Them. She says she’s happy to spend as long as it takes to get legislation enacting positive changes in the classroom that all parties involved can agree on.
Early voting: An embarrassing election meltdown in Richland County in November brought heightened attention to the need for early voting in South Carolina this year. The House passed a version of a bill, though it actually limits access to early voting rather than expands it by eliminating the in-person absentee form of de facto early voting voters are used to and creating a nine-day window to vote early. Senate Democrats hope to turn that bill into a “true early voting bill,” and not the “nonsense” passed by the House, says Bailey of the Democratic Caucus.
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