S.C. Senate Runs Away From Recording Votes

December 28, 2012

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Senate ChamberOnce again, the S.C. Senate has rebuffed the chance to elevate South Carolina from its status as one of the least transparent states in the nation.

In what likely was one of the most ironic moments in recent legislative history, a proposal by a senator to require roll call votes at the committee and subcommittee levels was quickly rejected by the 46-member chamber in an unrecorded voice vote during an organizational session earlier this month.

“If we’re going to presume that the best government results when citizens are involved, then we must know what goes on in these committees,” said Nerve Citizen Reporter Don Rogers of Greenville.

Rogers and fellow Nerve Citizen Reporter Larry Barnett of Fort Mill have been among the most vocal grassroots activists calling for rule amendments, but to little avail thus far.

During the Senate’s organizational session earlier this month, Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, proposed to amend the rules so that votes at the committee and subcommittee levels would be recorded.

“From the discussion on the floor, I thought it was going to pass,” Bright told The Nerve afterward.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, called for a roll call vote with the support of Bright and at least three other senators: Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston; Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington; and Tom Young, R-Aiken. Under Senate rules, a roll call vote must be held if at least five senators request it.

But the commotion on the Senate floor likely prevented other senators from hearing the proposed amendment, said Shealy, who noted she raised her hand after Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the Senate president, closed the voting, citing an insufficient number of hands.

Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, then urged McConnell to stand by his decision; and Bright’s amendment was defeated in a subsequent unrecorded voice vote.

“I’ll vote for roll call voting on anything. I want people to know how I vote,” Shealy told The Nerveafterward. “I’m for (it) on everything, anytime and anywhere, because people should know how we vote.”

Rogers agreed.

“The most important part of creating a law occurs in the committee,” he said.  “That’s where most of the work (on a bill) is done. When they’re in committees — standing, sub, joint, ad hoc — anytime they take an action they have to vote on, they should record and show how each member votes.”

Rogers’ efforts to get votes recorded at the committee and subcommittee levels have been met with a generally lukewarm response from lawmakers. The Greenville Tea Party member previously emailed and mailed hard copy letters to all members of the S.C. General Assembly asking for their support.

Rogers said he received only a handful of positive responses.

In November, Rogers said he and fellow Greenville Tea Party members approached the Greenville County legislative delegation and passed out a form requesting that they indicate where they stood on the issue.

“That paper disappeared,” he recalled.

Moreover, Rogers said after he finished speaking, he “got no response” from the delegation, adding, “They didn’t have any questions or comments for me.”

Contacted recently, Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, and Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, told The Nerve that they believe recording roll call votes should be left up to the individual chairs of each committee.

All committee meetings require minutes, said Courson, “and I would certainly encourage chairs to do so (record votes), but that’s really their call.”

Thanks in large part to Rogers, Courson, who was not present for the roll-call voting decision during the organizational meeting, said he has been recording votes whenever a bill comes before the Senate Education Committee, which Courson chairs.

“He (Rogers) suggested that we keep a tally sheet,” said Courson.

For the past three or four years when he chaired the Fish, Game and Forestry Committee, Cromer said he had votes recorded.

Before legislation can be voted upon by the 170-member General Assembly, respective committees must reach a consensus as to how the law should be amended or determine whether a bill should become law at all. Rogers noted that lobbyists often play a significant role in the committee process.

Last year, The General Assembly passed legislation that requires roll-call voting on second readings and amended third readings of bills on the floor of the two chambers, as well as on individual sections of the annual state budget bill on second readings.

But there is no similar law requiring recorded votes at the committee and subcommittee levels, where much of the work on a bill is done.

“Many times legislators may not be sufficiently informed about details of a particular bill,” Rogers said. “And so they just go along with the leadership or the committee chairman.”

“It’s not enough to say committees are open to public,” he continued. “Most people don’t have time to attend these meetings. That’s why we elect these representatives, and we want to know what they’re up to.”

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.