Our agenda was packed with bills this past week as we sought to finish legislative business by 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 5, the official day of adjournment for the General Assembly. By week’s end, we had adopted much legislation, including a revised, compromise budget (H 4701) for fiscal year 2014-15, a conference committee report on ethics reform legislation and a conference committee report implementing the House-approved ban on texting while driving.
Conference committees are appointed by House and Senate leaders to come up with a compromise (a report) between different versions of legislation approved by the House and Senate. The conference committee is made up of three House members and three senators.
Texting while driving
Many cheered on the House floor Wednesday afternoon when we were told that Senate conferees had agreed to the House version of legislation (S 459) prohibiting texting while driving. The Senate version applied mostly to beginning drivers, while the House version would apply to all drivers, with a few exceptions. Specifically, drivers could not compose, send or read a text message on a cellphone. Convicted drivers would be fined up to $25 for each violation, but no points would be assessed against someone’s driving record. The bill would override texting-while-driving bans previously adopted by local governments in our state.
After a great deal of debate, the compromise ethics reform proposal (H 3945) was approved by the House in a vote of 101-12. Many legislators voted against the compromise because it failed to include a key House provision that would have created an independent commission to investigate allegations of ethics violations. However, the compromise included important other provisions that would require all state and local officials to disclose their sources of income, ban leadership political action committees, increase civil penalties for ethics violations, allow ethics committees to subpoena financial records, end cash expenditures and give the state Ethics Commission jurisdiction over third-party political groups.
The budget compromise, which has been approved by the Senate and will soon go to the governor’s office, was an amendment devised by key Senators, House members and staffers, in an effort to avoid the extra step of sending the budget to a conference committee
The compromise, which has been approved by the Senate, includes the following provisions:
State employees would receive a 2 percent pay raise — higher than the 1.5 percent approved in the original House budget but without the one-time $300 bonus for each state employee included in the Senate version. The state would cover all the costs of premium increases for those enrolled in the state health plan. Co-payments would be limited to a 9 percent increase.
The state-funded kindergarten program for 4-year-olds living in poverty would be expanded to all school districts where 70 percent or more students get free or reduced-price lunches or are on Medicaid. Some $180 million would go toward education reform proposals, including nearly $30 million for reaching coaches and $4.5 million for summer reading camps. An additional $3.8 million, for a total of $18 million, would be allotted for the purchase of school buses.
$1.4 million would be restored to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s certificate of need program, which regulates the building and expansion of health care facilities in the state. An amendment on the House floor would have suspended funding for the program, but after much debate, was defeated.
$2.6 million would be allotted for a consultant to review the state’s higher education system. The state’s technical college worker training programs, and the state Department of Mental Health’s school-based programs would receive increased funding.
The compromise would move a $3 million grant increase at the Rural Infrastructure Authority, from nonrecurring to recurring, which is a more stable funding. The agency provides grants to build or enhance sewage and water facilities, and to support economic development in impoverished rural communities.
Fifteen new law enforcement officers would be funded at the state Department of Natural Resources, and a $1.1 million grant program would be created for local law enforcement at the Department of Public Safety.
Any vetoes by the governor on the budget or other legislation will be taken up during an extended session during the week of June 18.
The Legislature meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from January through mid-June. If you need to reach me on those days, please contact the Columbia office, at 803-734-2999, 333C Blatt Building, P.O. Box 11867, Columbia, S.C. 29211. My email address in Columbia is email@example.com. On days when we are out of session, please contact the Chesterfield County Legislative Delegation Office, at 843-623-5001, 200 West Main Street, Chesterfield, S.C. 29709, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.