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Phantom of the Legislative Session

While tens of thousands of South Carolina state workers were spending last Thursday away from the office observing Confederate Memorial Day, the S.C. Senate was soldiering on – sort of.

According to the Senate Journal for May 10, the chamber assembled at 11 a.m. and Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, submitted favorable reports on two significant pieces of legislation.

The first, H. 4813, was the appropriations bill, detailing state spending for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. It’s already been passed by the House.

The second, H. 4814, is a joint resolution to allow unexpended funds from the Capital Reserve Fund to be used to finance a list of projects for the coming fiscal year. It, too, has received approval from the House.

According to the Senate Journal, after Leathernan’s actions, Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, motioned for the chamber to adjourn at 11:15 a.m. Thursday and meet the following day.

Both the Senate and the House typically meet Tuesday through Thursday while in session, though they can meet on Mondays and Fridays for important matters.

The Senate Journal for Friday shows that Setzler called the Senate to order at 11 a.m., and Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, motioned for adjournment five minutes later, with no action taken.

Why is this noteworthy? Because there wasn’t a single senator to be found in the chamber on either day, according to eyewitnesses, officials with the Senate Finance Committee and at least one state senator.

“No, we were not in session on Thursday because it was Confederate Memorial Day,” said Courson, president pro tempore of the Senate. “And while occasionally we will be in session on Friday, we were not last Friday.”

So why does the official record say different?

“It’s a procedural matter,” Courson said. “The appropriations bill was read across the desk so that it could be taken up by the Senate Tuesday (today).”

According to Senate rules, the budget bill must be available for general viewing on the Senate’s website for at least 72 hours before the full Senate can take up the measure. The phantom sessions speed the process along, even if they don’t actually take place.

Leatherman did not return calls from The Nerve on Monday seeking comment.

This is hardly the first time the General Assembly has met in a phantom session. In fact, it’s a regular practice.

In 2010, for example, The Nerve detailed how the Senate passed a bill to form the I-95 Corridor Authority on a Friday in late April, though chamber members weren’t in session.

The bill was one of four bills given third reading that day, all of which moved forward with unanimous consent. The bill didn’t pass that year, but became law in 2011.

“This is one of the devious ways in which the General Assembly works, and it raises in the public’s mind serious questions about the integrity and legitimacy of the legislative process when these kinds of games are played,” John Crangle, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, said at the time.

It appears the Senate may have recorded as many as 20 phantom sessions during the current legislative year.

The House has also had numerous phantom sessions this year, though not as many as the Senate. The House recorded itself as being in session Friday when no one was in the chamber, but not on Confederate Memorial Day.

Courson said he doesn’t see an issue with recording non-existent meetings. He said he doesn’t believe the average South Carolinian would be confused by reading a legislative journal detailing sessions that never happened.

“This is the first time anyone’s ever asked me about it,” he said.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.

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