Roll-Call Voting Bill Fizzles in Senate

June 9, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveS.C. Sen. Shane Martin is mad that a House bill requiring more roll-call voting never got to the Senate floor for debate.

“You can probably tell the frustration in my voice,” the Spartanburg Republican told The Nerve last Wednesday, the day before the General Assembly adjourned its regular legislative session without taking up H. 3047, sponsored by Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington.

Seeing that the bill was stuck for nearly two months  in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Martin on May 27 convinced a majority of his Senate colleagues – albeit by a two-vote margin – to move the bill onto the Senate calendar for a floor debate.

But Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, the Judiciary Committee chairman and an outspoken opponent of the bill; and Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, a vocal critic of Haley, put their names on the bill to contest it, effectively killing any debate.

It’s a powerful procedural move that often can stall or kill a bill. Debate on Haley’s bill was a possibility if McConnell and Knotts had removed their names from it, or if the chamber by a two-thirds vote agreed to place the bill on the “special order,” or priority, calendar.

Given the move by McConnell and Knotts, it’s unlikely the bill will pass this session. The Legislature returns to session on Tuesday, mainly to consider any vetoes by Gov. Mark Sanford.

“I just wanted the bill to get a fair debate,” Martin told The Nerve, adding he supported Haley’s bill and was one of 22 co-sponsors of a similar Senate bill (S. 11) sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee.

Martin said although there are “pros and cons to all the (Senate) rules,” sometimes “it’s a game that holds things up.”

John Crangle, the director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, says he’s seen that gamesmanship often during the 24 years he has been monitoring the Legislature.

“It sometimes does allow one senator or a group of senators too much power to strangle the baby in the crib,” Crangle told The Nerve last week.

Still, Crangle said that unlike their counterparts in the House, many senators believe “their primary purpose is preventing mistakes from occurring rather than passing legislation.”

And as part of that “wisdom culture,” he continued, when a senator objects to a bill, “because he is a wise senator, everybody should listen to what he says.”

It was no secret McConnell opposed Haley’s roll-call voting bill.

The bill, which was introduced in January 2009 but didn’t make it out the House Ways and Means Committee that year. It was recalled from that committee on March 24 this year and unanimously passed a key second reading on the House floor the next day.

It got to McConnell’s Senate Judiciary Committee on March 30 and was assigned April 6 to a subcommittee chaired by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens. The other two subcommittee members were Knotts and Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston.

And there the bill sat – for weeks and weeks without any action. Knotts told The Nerve in April that he wouldn’t allow the bill to come up for a vote in the subcommittee.

McConnell, Knotts and Larry Martin were among 13 senators on May 27 who voted against recalling the bill from the Judiciary Committee. Shane Martin was among 15 senators who voted for it.

Neither Knotts nor McConnell responded to written questions last week from The Nerve about why they place objections on the bill after it was recalled from the Judiciary Committee. But McConnell included a written statement on his May 27 vote in the Senate Journal  for that day.

“I voted against the motion to recall H. 3047 from committee not because I am against transparency in voting, but rather I believe we must be more transparent and our Senate Journal should be more user-friendly,” McConnell wrote.

McConnell, an attorney, said he believed the bill is “clearly unconstitutional,” explaining that the framers of the S.C. Constitution “wanted the bodies in the Legislature to set their rules without interference of the other house, the governor and the courts.”

Charleston School of Law constitutional law professor John Simpkins, however, who earlier reviewed the bill at the request of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, determined that the bill likely would be ruled constitutional by the courts.

In his memorandum, which was cited during a May 5 subcommittee hearing, Simpkins said the bill is “arguably a law that would have an impact on the direct relationship between citizens and their elected representatives, not simply a rule governing how the Legislature is organized or conducts its daily business.”

The Nerve reported on the same day that according to a Policy Council study of 1,756 votes cast by the House and Senate during this session through March 31, 251, or slightly more than 14 percent, were roll-call votes. Lawmakers voted anonymously 75 percent of the time over the entire 2009 session, and just 5 percent of passed bills and resolutions in 2008 were done by recorded votes, earlier Policy Council studies found.

Under Haley’s bill, roll-call votes would be required for:

  • Second readings of bills or joint resolutions;
  • Section-by-section adoption on the second reading of the state budget bill;
  • Approval of amendments sent over from their other chamber;
  • Amended third readings of bills or joint resolutions; and
  • Adoption of conference committee reports.

McConnell and Larry Martin, the Senate Rules Committee chairman, contend that a resolution (S. 1365) introduced by them on April 15 would go even further than Haley’s bill. Larry Martin earlier told The Nerve that under the resolution, Senate rules would be amended to require that voice votes on uncontested bills and motions be recorded in the Senate Journal as “yes” unless the senator who was present for the vote informed the Senate clerk he wanted to record a “no” vote.

“It resolves any question now of whether we’re doing roll-call voting,” Martin told The Nerve then. “It would blanket cover everything not covered now by (Senate) Rule 16.”

McConnell in his Senate Journal statement on May 27 noted that he was the “author of the resolution to change our Senate rules to provide 100% transparency and make every vote that is taken to be a recorded (vote).”

Haley earlier told The Nerve that the proposed resolution was “not permanent law,” and that it was “one more excuse why they (senators) don’t vote on the record.”

McConnell’s Senate colleagues apparently weren’t impressed enough with the resolution to pass it before the regular session adjourned Thursday. If the resolution cannot be taken up when senators return to session on Tuesday, the roll-call voting debate likely won’t resume until the start of the next legislative session in January.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.