Quietly passed laws give legislative delegations more powers

October 16, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

At least one thing didn’t change in the S.C. Legislature during the coronavirus outbreak this year: legislative delegations’ control over local affairs.

Two delegations gained even more power.

Last month, lawmakers quietly passed a Senate bill, which had stalled after COVID-19 hit the state in the spring, giving the three-member Hampton County legislative delegation the authority to appoint a nine-member school board pending the planned consolidation of Hampton County school districts 1 and 2.

The delegation is made up of Democratic Sens. Brad Hutto and Margie Bright Matthews, and Democratic Rep. Shedron Williams, who is the delegation chairman.

Under the bill, which was sponsored by Hutto and Matthews, the delegation-appointed board will govern the newly consolidated school district after it officially begins operations next July 1. Before then, the existing two school boards can continue operating – with certain restrictions, such as getting approval of the delegation-appointed board before making purchases over $25,000.

The full delegation-appointed board will exist until the 2022 general election of four members of a new, seven-member permanent board. At that time, the delegation will select three members from the delegation-appointed board to the new board, who will serve until the 2024 general election for those seats.

The delegation must fill vacancies on the new permanent board that occur before a general election, according to the bill, which Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law on Sept. 28.

Hutto and Matthews didn’t return written messages Thursday from The Nerve seeking comment. Contacted Thursday, Williams said the proposal for the delegation-appointed board didn’t originate with the delegation, though he and his fellow members support it.

“We were advised by (state superintendent of education) Molly Spearman that it would be the wisest thing to do,” he said. “The bill was drawn up with the recommendation of the Governor’s Office as well as the state superintendent, and that’s why we got involved.”

Williams said the delegation is in the “process of selecting and appointing members for the transition board, who will be main functioning board over the next year, year and a half.” Under the newly passed law, appointments can be made by a majority of the delegation.

The Hampton County legislation is similar to a bill, which quickly was passed by lawmakers in January and signed into law by McMaster, giving the Clarendon County legislative delegation the power to appoint a seven-member school board pending the consolidation of Clarendon County school districts 1 and 3.

That delegation is made up of Democratic Sen. Kevin Johnson, who sponsored the bill, and Democratic Reps. Cezar McKnight and Robert Ridgeway.

The Nerve last year reported that Johnson authored a bill – enacted over McMaster’s objections – that gave the delegation direct control over appointing the nine-member Clarendon 2 school board, and also the authority to select four of the nine members of the Clarendon 1 school board.

In his veto message then, McMaster said bills such as Johnson’s “should take care to avoid unnecessary legislative entanglement in the affairs of local schools.”

Clarendon and Hampton counties aren’t the only counties where legislative delegations can exert control over their respective school districts. The Nerve, for example, in 2013 reported about Democratic Rep. Jackie Hayes’ appointment power over the Dillon County Board of Education, which now selects all members of the Dillon 4 school board.

Until the mid-1970s, county legislative 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’ influence over local school districts – or other local matters.

Legislative delegations, for example, appoint most County Transportation Committees (CTCs) statewide, which determine what local road projects to fund with part of the state gasoline tax. And The Nerve last year 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.

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