Halftime in football provides the opportunity to re-work the game plan; discard what isn’t working and implement new winning strategies. Halftime for the South Carolina General Assembly is over. The new year is here and it is time to reconvene the second half of the 123rd legislative session next week.
A win or a loss?
The big question – will representatives and senators win the game for South Carolinians or punt the ball by failing to resolve big issues because it is an election year?
Frankly, I fear it will be another low-scoring session with a few key issues being addressed but important ones left untouched. It doesn’t have to be that way. Call me an idealist, but I believe in political courage, not political expediency. Each legislator was sent to the Statehouse to do our people’s work regardless of political consequences.
Here is my look at the big issues in the upcoming session:
Windfall of money: South Carolina’s economy is booming resulting in a windfall of tax revenues. State economists forecast nearly $2 billion in extra money. That takes our general fund spending plan to over $10 billion – the largest in history. Newfound money will bring a lot of wrangling over where to spend it all.
Flatter and fairer taxation: With our revenue windfall, there has never been a better time to talk about tax reform and tax cuts. It’s time – it is way past time. I have served on a special tax reform committee for the past three years and we know for certain that South Carolina’s tax system is unfair, unstable and uncompetitive. State income tax rates must be lowered. States around us are reaping the benefits of the tried and true pro-growth principles of broad base taxation and lowering rates. Our state sales tax could also be cut in half, from 6% to 3%, if most of the current exemptions were eliminated. I have cosponsored legislation to accomplish both of these tax goals and they will be considered this year.
Paying teachers fairly: This new revenue will help boost the salaries of our poorly paid teachers. A step in the right direction came last year when the General Assembly voted to give teachers a 4% raise and starting teachers had their base salary boosted $3,000. Going forward, Gov. Henry McMaster is asking to spend $211 million more in adding $3,000 to the annual pay of South Carolina’s more than 50,000 public school teachers. That would put the state’s average teacher salary into the top 25 in the nation.
Education reform: Once again, high on the legislative agenda are initiatives to improve public education. With better policies, our students can get a first-rate education to prepare them to be productive citizens so they can enjoy the fruits of a fulfilling, happy life. Last year, the House of Representatives passed a series of bills providing comprehensive reforms. Those bills are expected to be debated by the full Senate. More reform bills have been introduced this year after hearing a clear message from teachers around the state. The legislature is also tackling its outdated, flawed funding formula for public education with efforts to make it simpler and provide more local spending discretion. Look for much resistance inside and outside the legislature – change is slow and difficult in the Palmetto State.
The Santee Cooper mess: Since the V.C. Summer nuclear financial meltdown of 2017, the fate of Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric and water utility, has been precarious. Santee Cooper wasted $4 billion on the failed nuclear power plant is shouldering huge debts as a result. This session should bring resolution of the sale of this utility as a way of staving off inevitable rate hikes to be paid by the 2 million South Carolinians who have its power. This single issue could dominate debate and push other important issue aside.
Abortion: The fetal heartbeat abortion bill that passed the House last spring may be on life support in the Senate. Senate Republicans worked during our offseason to fast-track the bill that would prohibit abortion after about six weeks. Senate Democrats have promised to filibuster it. It appears Republican Senators don’t have the votes to stop them jawboning, so it may never be fully debated or receive a vote.
My personal agenda
South Carolinians are fed up with dangerous, distracted drivers blinded by looking at their smartphones. As the longtime champion of "Hands Free" (DUI-Electronics) legislation, I will continue to push for passage of the House and Senate bills that would make it illegal for drivers to hold their cell phones. They would still be able to talk on the phone, just not hold it. Similar legislation has been passed by 20 states, and more have it cued up. Why are we so late to this danger-averting parade?
And for those who are fed up with our federal government (and that’s just about all of us regardless of political persuasion), there is an answer to reining in this bloated, overreaching juggernaut. It is the Article V Convention of States. Our Founders gave states a path to limit federal largess. As the primary sponsor of Article V legislation, I am backed by a grassroots army of more than 20,000 South Carolinians. In 2019, both the state Republican Party and Libertarian Party adopted platforms supporting an Article V convention.
South Carolina needs these issues handled. Now. Proactive bests reactive. Every time.