Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Thursday, June 5 is formally known as “sine die” for the South Carolina General Assembly. The phrase itself is from Latin and means “without day.” For our purposes, it signifies the end of the two-year legislative session – and a mad rush of legislation to beat that deadline.
I have written and stated many times that crisis is the primary ingredient necessary for legislative action. Deadlines often serve as that “crisis” and sine die meets that description. What happens in the waning days of a session is nothing less than amazing. Bills that have been held in committee, or forgotten, or delayed are suddenly rushed to the floor with controversial amendments attached or in exchange for other bills receiving a hearing. Simply stated, there is more legislative activity in the final few weeks than the preceding months combined.
It is difficult to follow and not a good way to operate. But as previously written, crisis is what drives the process and after more than a decade in office, I accept this modus operandi.
The most important item is the state budget. The fiscal year begins on July 1 of each year and lasts until June 30. This year was unique in that there was not an official conference committee assigned to the budget. It was determined that the House and Senate versions of the budget were close enough so that differences could be ironed out without one. While I think the budget is acceptable, it may take a few weeks to determine a final opinion. I will write a budget-specific column (that addresses local issues) later, but statewide highlights include:
– State employees receive a 2-percent raise ($30.6 million) and the state payed for the increase in premium costs for their health insurance ($57 million)
– Reserve funds were fully funded ($447.3 million)
– Statewide cyber security upgrades as recommended ($10.4 million)
– Implemented Governor Haley's K-12 Education plan ($180 million)
– Expanded 4K program for students in poverty areas
– Allocated $18 million for the purchase of school buses.
– Appropriated funds for Georgetown and Jasper port projects.
– Creates a local law enforcement grant program.
– Increases local road funds to $15 million
– Increases higher education funding by $15.2 million for technical colleges and $5.4 million in recurring funds for colleges and universities (approximate yearly recurring state funding $500 million)
A tentative date to address the governor's vetoes is set for June 17, so the final disposition of the state budget may change. Also, much of the legislation that received public attention and debate has been sent to conference committee and will be dealt with between now and then.
The College of Charleston research university bill is one such item. I have been asked to serve on that committee and the six members will begin meeting next week. I am hopeful we can find a compromise – especially since Rep. Stavrinakis and I began this legislation over a year ago in response to the needs and requests of our community. Senator Grooms worked hard in the Senate for passage, but petty egos and political posturing held it back. Perhaps we can overcome those hurdles in the days ahead.
I am extremely proud that we passed “brewpub” legislation last week. To be very blunt, this bill benefited from absolutely perfect timing and some pretty good procedural maneuvering. The Department of Commerce has numerous prospects that are interested in locating in South Carolina. Our small craft brewery industry is beginning to expand dramatically. And we were able to find legislation on the calendar that served as a proper and germane vehicle for the amendment.
I worked with Rep. Durham Cole of Spartanburg to write and sponsor the language and we received tremendous support, including from the wholesale distributors. I believe in the end we will see the creation of many jobs and an increase in the number of brewers locating here because of this legislation.
The House also worked hard on military affairs by passing legislation that allows for hiring preferences for veterans, providing in-state tuition for veterans and dependents who attend the state's colleges and universities, and allowing active military to maintain the 4-percent resident tax rate on their homes while deployed or assigned elsewhere. The General Assembly also approved a South Carolina Prisoner of War Medal that may be awarded to current and former residents of the state.
With much publicity, a solar bill finally was debated and approved. Though I have consistently supported solar expansion and authored legislation providing tax credits and net metering opportunities, I am disappointed in this legislation. The bottom line is that for the “compromise” to be approved, residential, business and manufacturing will eventually see an increase in their bills tucked away as a “fuel” charge. I find it awful that with profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars by the utilities, the only way an expansion of solar could be fashioned is on the backs of ratepayers. I am hopeful we can implement the program and make changes in the future, while also benefiting from the expansion of solar and alternative energy.
Though the House adjourned sine die on Thursday, there will be a great deal of activity over the next month – especially when we return to address gubernatorial vetoes. I will write about those activities in the coming weeks and mail my annual legislative update in the near future.
Thank you for your trust and support, and all the best to you and your family.
Rep. Jim Merrill is the former Majority Leader of the South Carolina House of Representatives and represents District 99 which is comprised of Hanahan, Daniel Island, Cainhoy, Goose Creek and Mount Pleasant.