Legislators Waste Time Debating Heritage Animals

May 27, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveTwo members of the horse family unwittingly have become a distraction in the General Assembly as lawmakers face many pressing issues, not least of which is one of the worst state budget pictures in modern history.

It’s the kind of story that lends itself to snarky analogies and irreverent one-liners:

It’s on like Donkey Kong!

It’s an ass of a diversion from the serious stuff of legislating!

But to that point, taxpaying South Carolinians who expect their elected representatives in the State House to address the true concerns of the day might not find it all that funny.

The powers that be in the Senate say they have too much to deal with to put all of their chamber’s ayes and nays on the record in roll-call votes, recently even mocking the decidedly democratic notion.

Lawmakers again failed to do anything about comprehensive tax reform this legislative session. They declined to pass a bipartisan bill to reform the problem-plagued S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The list, as it were, goes on.

But, lo and behold, some lawmakers have found time this session, which began in mid-January and ends in about three weeks, to go back and forth about whether to name the marsh tacky the official state heritage horse of South Carolina.

Though a seemingly innocuous matter, legislation to that effect, S. 1030, is stuck in committee because of an amendment to the bill.

The amendment would likewise – brace for more news from the far side – designate the mule as the official state heritage work animal of South Carolina.

Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-York and chairman of the House Invitations and Memorial Resolutions Committee, opposes the amendment. The committee has jurisdiction over the bill on the House side, and that’s where it’s bogged down.

Why does Kirsh object to the amendment?

“I don’t like the looks of the crappy looking horse,” Kirsh says of the marsh tacky. “That’s what it is. I looked at it. I’d rather give a mule the credit than the horse. I’m not gonna vote for that.”

Does Kirsh have a particular breed in mind that would do justice to the Palmetto State’s image as its official heritage horse?

“No sir,” he says.

What about the mule amendment?

“Well, it’s dead in the water as far as I’m concerned,” Kirsh says.

“We’ve got too many other things to be doing instead of worrying about that horse,” he adds.

Tick, tick, ticks the clock of the legislative session.

So much to do, so little time. Just five months, from mid-January to mid-June, to get it all done.

But whoa, Nellie!: On second thought, maybe the honorables actually have too much time on their hands.

Consider: For a part-time legislature such as South Carolina’s, says Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based National Conference of State Legislatures, “An average session length is 120 calendar days.”

That means the Palmetto State’s session is a full-on month longer than the norm.

In five states, as diverse as Oregon and Texas, the legislature convenes only every other year.

In Georgia, the session is limited to 40 legislative days; in Florida, 60 calendar days.

The National Conference of State Legislatures tabulates the length of each state’s session on the organization’s website.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, is the chief sponsor of the marsh tacky bill. “I was doing it at the request of the DAR – the Daughters of the American Revolution,” Hayes says.

He says he was a little reluctant to do so. “Because I have other things to do, too.”

But it seemed important to the DAR, Hayes says, so he went ahead and introduced it.

Horse Sense

The bill begins with a little background on the horse, describing it as unique to South Carolina with a significant role in the state’s history:

“After abandonment by the Spanish on the South Carolina sea islands and along the South Carolina coast some five hundred years ago, the marsh tacky survived on its own and developed into a unique strain of colonial Spanish horse,” the legislation says.

“These tough, little horses assisted our forefathers in the development and defense of our state and were the major source of transportation in the Lowcountry before the introduction of the automobile.”

Marsh tacky owners, the bill continues, “often comment on the built-in ‘woods sense’ of the breed and how the horses have a natural way of traversing water obstacles and swamps.”

In conclusion, the measure says, “With its rich heritage, resilience, and perseverance, the marsh tacky embodies the very spirit of South Carolina. The marsh tacky is uniquely of South Carolina and remains a living piece of history in its native state, a claim that no other breed can make. The marsh tacky has earned the title of state heritage horse of South Carolina.”

Including Hayes, 10 senators – eight Republicans and two Democrats – are sponsoring the bill and most of them are from the Upstate, the fact that the marsh tacky is from the Lowcountry notwithstanding.

(Now that’s some bipartisan, regional cooperation in the Legislature!)

Jackie McFadden, a Rock Hill resident and board member of the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, says two horse advocacy groups have deemed the marsh tacky endangered.

The breed no longer roams the sea islands, according to McFadden.

“Most of the islands are developed now,” she says, “and they took the horses off the islands when all the construction started. There used to be hundreds on Hilton Head. If people needed a horse they would just go over and get one.”

The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association supports the bill.

But, just in case you’re curious, a search of the State Ethics Commission website shows that the association is not listed among many lobbyist principals who pay people to try to influence the Legislature and are required by state law to register with the commission.

Hayes says it’s not about money. “There’s no fiscal impact to the state, and I don’t know how anybody could turn this into a moneymaker,” he says of his bill. “I’d be highly surprised if anybody has a financial interest in this.”

Does Kirsh see a financial motive behind the bill? “I don’t think so,” he says.

Clocking the Bill

Hayes also says the Senate made quick work of the legislation. “The amount of time that it took on the floor was probably 10 minutes,” he says.

Perhaps, but the bill has consumed legislative time in other ways, including when it was drafted.

The Senate passed the bill on April 20 and sent it to the House.

The House then added the mule amendment, at the behest of Rep. Ken Kennedy, a Democrat from Williamsburg, before passing the bill on May 12 and sending it back to the Senate for concurrence with the amended version.

However, the House put the mule amendment in the wrong section of the state code.

So, the Senate amended the amendment and shipped the bill back to the House, where it lingers.

An action calendar on the legislation shows that debate on it in the House was adjourned on April 29, interrupted on May 6 and adjourned again that day.

In addition, this is not the first year the bill has been introduced in the Legislature.

Just a routine, ceremonial measure, right?

Says Hayes of the mule amendment, “I thought it was a joke at first.”

He’s not the only one.

“A lot of guys, when I started out with this, laughed,” Kennedy says.

But to him, it isn’t a joke. For five years, Kennedy says, he has been trying to get the mule its due. “And I am very serious about this.”

Kennedy says he has no problems with the marsh tacky. “But nobody will talk about the mule.”

Granted, he says, “The mule is not a sexy animal.” But it does have a long history of providing hard labor to the United States, in World War I for example, and South Carolina, when cotton was king for instance, Kennedy says.

And, growing up in a rural part of the state, he adds, “The mule was like a member of our family.”

Certain lawmakers and others interested in the issue oppose the amendment because the mule is not distinct to South Carolina.

“I beg to differ,” Kennedy says.

Certain lawmakers and others say the Legislature has more important things to do.

“I agree 100 percent,” Kennedy says. “Teachers are losing their jobs. The budget in this state is going into the tubes. But this bill was introduced by some Republicans. They’re the ones that was pushing that. They were pushing the marsh tacky, and I was pushing the mule.”

Last week, Kennedy took to the podium on the House floor and announced that he had been to his doctor. The lawmaker apparently had been concerned about his health, but he informed his colleagues that day that his physician told him he’s doing fine.

As Kennedy repaired from the podium, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, proclaimed, “Mr. Kennedy, we had no doubt that you are as strong as a mule.”

Several members of the chamber guffawed.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your Legislature in action.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.