MY LAST NERVE: At the End of Session, Rules Go out the Window

May 15, 2015

Inside Insight

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Senate

HERE COME THE PROCEDURAL SHENANIGANS

With nine legislative days remaining this session, the Senate is suddenly in overdrive to get the “people’s business” done. Having wasted four and a half months on mostly insignificant bills and resolutions, and fearing the inevitable and well-deserved criticism that lawmakers have gotten nothing important done yet again, they’re suddenly moving lightning fast. And, as often happens toward the end of each session, the rules are going out the window.

Take the gas tax hike. The bill was set for special order without a roll call vote Tuesday. There had been a previous vote to set this gas tax hike – and another $800 million tax increase – for special order, and both times the Senate failed to get the necessary votes to do so. It makes no sense that, after failing twice before to set the largest tax increase in state history for special order, the Senate would agree on the third try to do so without a recorded vote. After all, it would have taken 31 favorable votes out of 46 (two thirds of the members present and voting) for the motion to carry, and the closest they had previously gotten was 26. But no: They did it on a voice vote. All in favor say aye, all opposed say no, the ayes have it. Done.

The bill is now in priority status behind two other bills.

After the House failed to pass a bond bill earlier this year during their budget deliberations, the Senate Finance Committee agreed to tack on its own version of a bond bill to the Capital Reserve Fund bill. (Background: the Capital Reserve Fund, supposedly for capital projects, is in practice a slush fund for lawmakers’ pet projects.) The bond package totaled $236.7 million – all but $15 million of which would be dedicated to higher education. Sen. Kevin Bryant (R-Anderson) had issued a minority report (an objection) on the bill out of committee. On Tuesday, however, he removed the objection, allowing the bill to come up for debate and enabling Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens) to question the germaneness of the bond package to the Capital Reserve Fund bill.

Here’s where things get interesting. Lieutenant Governor (and Senate President) Henry McMaster sustained Sen. Martin’s point of order – effectively killing the bond package, but not the remainder of the bill. In a move that rarely occurs in the Senate, Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) appealed the President’s ruling, forcing McMaster to leave the chamber while members debated his ruling. In the end, the Senate voted 31-14 in favor of the President’s ruling. So once again, the bond package was dead. The $84.8 million Capital Reserve Fund bill (less the bond package) is one bill in priority status ahead of the gas tax bill. That amount – $84.8 million – is bound to go up, too: the Senate version of this bill only appropriates $1 to 23 of the 79 items on the list – meaning the true appropriation amounts haven’t been included yet.

And now for the final act. The bond bill is back! Not too long after the above incident, the Senate Finance Committee met for their regular Tuesday afternoon meeting. The public agenda for the meeting listed one bill – a House bill transferring a National Guard Armory from the Budget and Control Board to the Town of Cheraw. But a bill not on the agenda stole the focus of the meeting – the bond bill. Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence) had previously filed S.657 in April of this year. When filed, the bill was simply a shell bill – a bill without content – but it was taken up by the committee and amended with a bond package identical to the one that had just hours before “died” on the floor. That amendment was adopted, and the bill passed out of committee favorably, with a minority report by Sen. Bryant. The standalone bond bill was put on the Senate calendar for Wednesday. The minority report makes it more difficult, but not impossible, for the bill to be debated and passed before session ends.

An important vote on a major tax increase done on a voice vote; a budget shenanigan of dubious legality that would have passed if it weren’t for a non-lawmaker presiding over the Senate (Lt. Gov. McMaster); a bill sans content suddenly becoming a multimillion-dollar bond package … clearly, we’re getting near the end of session and the State House boys are getting it done one way or another.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.