Legislative delegations attempting heavy hand – again – in local matters

March 24, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Like spring flowers, bills showcasing the powers of county legislative delegations are blooming at the State House these days.

The Legislature last week passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, and introduced just eight days earlier, that would consolidate Clarendon County School District 2 and the recently created District 4 – with the three-member legislative delegation, which Johnson chairs, in charge of appointing an interim school board.

Last month, Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed a related bill authored by Johnson and quickly passed by the Legislature, which would increase the size of the interim school board in District 4, created last year by lawmakers with the consolidation of districts 1 and 3, while keeping delegation control over the interim board appointments.

In his veto message, McMaster wrote that “any legislative efforts to merge school districts should take care to avoid unnecessary, and potentially unconstitutional, legislative entanglement in the consolidation process,” noting Johnson’s bill would “simply extend the duration of the Delegation’s dominion and control over the Board of Trustees.”

That bill, which The Nerve reported about before the veto was issued, was sent back to the delegation, though no further action has been taken, records show.

Johnson, a former Clarendon 2 school board member and mayor of Manning, didn’t reply to The Nerve’s written request Monday for comment. The county delegation includes Johnson’s daughter, newly elected Rep. Kimberly Johnson, D-Clarendon, who is a former Clarendon 2 school board chairwoman.

Sen. Johnson’s proposals aren’t the only delegation bills dealing with local schools. On Tuesday, Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, who is the Senate minority leader and part of the three-member Barnwell County delegation, introduced a bill that would consolidate Barnwell County school districts 19 and 29, with the delegation in charge of appointing an interim school board for the new district.

The bill wasn’t referred to a Senate committee, as is done with most bills, but instead was placed directly on the full Senate’s uncontested-bill calendar.

McMaster last week vetoed another bill, sponsored by Oconee County House delegation members Bill Sandifer and Bill Whitmire, both Republicans, which would change the makeup of that county’s Board of Assessment Appeals, while keeping the three-member delegation’s control over recommending nominees to the governor for appointment.

McMaster in his written veto message to the House said a provision in existing law allowing the delegation to set the board’s pay is “independently problematic,” citing an earlier state attorney general opinion.

Contacted Monday, Sandifer, who is chairman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, told The Nerve he was too busy to comment on his bill. The full House this week has been debating the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

On the other side of the state, Jasper County House delegation members Bill Herbkersman and Weston Newton, both Republicans whose home districts are in Beaufort County, introduced a joint resolution earlier this month that would require Jasper County to sell or convey certain property, where privately owned airplane hangars are located, at the Ridgeland-Claude Dean Airport.

Neither Herbkersman, who is a licensed pilot, nor county administrator Andy Fulghum responded to written requests Monday from The Nerve seeking comment. The Jasper County delegation has five members.

County legislative delegations exert considerable control in their respective counties. The Nerve earlier this month, for example, reported about separate House and Senate bills that would eliminate the authority of the head of the recently created state Department of Veterans’ Affairs in firing county veterans’ affairs officers, restoring the sole removal power to legislative delegations in their respective counties.

Until the mid-1970s, delegations generally governed counties, including approving county budgets. The Home Rule Act, which took effect in 1976, was supposed to give counties more control over their own affairs, though it didn’t end lawmakers’ control over other local matters.

Legislative delegations, for example, appoint most County Transportation Committees statewide, which determine what local road projects to fund with part of the state gasoline tax.

In 2019, The Nerve revealed how one senator in 12 counties can control the appointment of that county’s magistrates.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

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