Roll Call Voting Bill Clears Hurdle in Senate

March 16, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA stand-alone roll call voting bill has cleared a major hurdle in the S.C. Senate, but the legislation still faces a formidable road to become law.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and the Senate’s leading advocate of roll call voting, sponsored an amendment to the bill to make it a stand-alone measure and ushered the amendment to a vote in the chamber on Tuesday.

Martin’s amendment passed 32-12. It essentially takes the bill back to its original form when the House passed the legislation in January, unencumbered to a state constitutional amendment.

Without Martin’s amendment, the bill, as amended earlier by the Senate Judiciary Committee, could not become law until after voters in a statewide election approved an accompanying constitutional amendment.

Critics of the Judiciary Committee’s version of the bill, including Gov. Nikki Haley, contend that the amendment process would delay any permanent changes for two years. Martin says he supports a constitutional amendment, but does not believe that enacting the bill necessarily hinges on passage of a constitutional amendment.

Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, is the chief sponsor of the bill, H. 3004.

Mirroring legislation Haley authored and championed in her third and final term as a state representative, it would require on-the-record votes by lawmakers on each section of the annual state budget and any bill or joint resolution having the force and effect of law.

Speaking with The Nerve before the Senate convened on Tuesday, Ballentine sounded optimistic themes about the prospects of his legislation in the Senate.

Ballentine said lawmakers, regardless of their political party affiliation, seem willing to move forward on roll call voting legislation and give South Carolinians the accountability that they have demanded of legislators.

“And I think it’s time we give it to them,” Ballentine said.

His bill, however, must yet navigate a gauntlet of procedural pitfalls in the Senate.

“That’s the whole thing about this process,” Ballentine said when asked about those obstacles, “you’ve got to get 170 people plus one on board.”

The Senate is scheduled to reconvene this morning at 11 and resume debating the bill.

In a phone interview after the Senate passed his amendment, Martin said several other proposed amendments to the bill are pending in the Senate. “We’ll have to go through the amendments and then vote on the amended version,” he said.

Martin said he hopes the chamber passes a “clean” form of the bill that does not have to go to a House-Senate conference committee to work out a compromise draft of the legislation.

But he described the would-be amendments as unfriendly to that goal. The proposed changes relate to everything from legislative political action committees to legislators electing judges, Martin said. “I mean it’s all kind of stuff that obviously would be a problem for the House to accept.”

He said opponents of the bill want to load it up with amendments to defeat it.

“The big problem we’re going to have is disposing of those amendments,” Martin said. “The more baggage we put on this bill the harder it’s going to be to pass it.”

Specifically, the amended legislation would require roll call votes on:

  • each section of the state budget;
  • adoption of conference committee reports;
  • the second of three required readings of bills and joint resolutions;
  • concurrence by one chamber with the other body’s amendments to a bill or joint resolution; and
  • final passage of an amended bill or joint resolution.

The Senate passed Martin’s amendment after a more than four-hour debate in which senators focused on the constitutionality of it.Martin began the debate by arguing for his amendment. Throughout his oratory, the senator returned to a singular theme: The people of South Carolina want a roll call voting law, he said repeatedly.

“There’s something about the feel of this issue that’s unlike anything I’ve seen,” Martin said.

At the beginning of the legislative session, Martin, who is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, sponsored a rules change to require far more roll call voting in the chamber. Senators approved it unanimously.

Martin acknowledged that the proposed roll call voting law would not differ from the rules change. But he said the symbolism of a statute is huge and would inspire confidence in the public. “Because the folks that are pushing this, they’re not going away,” he said.

Meanwhile, Charleston Republican Sens. Chip Campsen and Glenn McConnell, the president pro tempore of the Senate, argued vociferously against Martin’s amendment.

Campsen and McConnell said they oppose it not because they object to roll call voting.

“I authored the first rules change to require it,” Campsen said of on-the-record voting in the Senate.

McConnell said at one point, “This Senate is a leader in roll call voting, and did so by its rules.”

Describing themselves as “strict constructionists,” Campsen and McConnell contended that a stand-alone roll call voting law would empower the judiciary to determine whether the General Assembly follows its procedures.

And that, the senators said, would encroach upon the constitutional separation of powers. Campsen and McConnell repeatedly cited Article 3, Section 12 of the S.C. Constitution. The article addresses the “Legislative Department,” and the section says, in part, that each chamber of the Legislature shall “determine its rules of procedure.”

McConnell spoke for about 45 minutes on Martin’s amendment, quoting constitutional journals and scholars at length. He characterized the debate as the difference between political passions of the day and timeless constitutional principles.

“I appeal to the public,” McConnell said. “The constitution should not be trampled upon.”

Ballentine also is sponsoring a roll call voting constitutional amendment, H. 3285. It would give the Legislature authority to pass a roll call voting law.

When Ballentine’s bill went to the Senate, that chamber’s Judiciary Committee, which McConnell chairs, reworked it to make the proposed law effective upon a constitutional amendment being finalized.

Martin’s amendment took the bill back to its original House version.

The House, by a required two-thirds majority, has approved the language of a constitutional amendment, and it’s on the Senate’s calendar.

“And we’re prepared to make that change,” McConnell said of the Senate following suit and sending the constitutional amendment to voters for approval – the second of three steps in the amendment process.

The final step is ratification of an amendment by a majority of lawmakers in both chambers.

But would the people have the patience for that process, which would take at least two years to complete?

Better not leave it to the Senate to debate that question.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org