Senate Passes Bills in Phantom Session

May 5, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA bill that would create a new state agency to promote economic development in 17 counties in the Lowcountry and Pee Dee was passed Friday by the Senate.

Bill S. 1323, which would form the I-95 Corridor Authority, passed third reading on a “voice vote,” and was ordered sent to the S.C. House, where it was referred to the Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

What’s striking about S. 1323 is that it passed despite the fact that there wasn’t a single legislator in the Senate during Friday’s “session.” That’s right – the S.C. Senate passed a bill even though no vote was actually taken and no senator set foot in the chamber at any point during the session, The Nerve confirmed.

You wouldn’t know that from the Senate Journal, though. According to the entry for last Friday “The Senate assembled at 11:00 A.M. … and was called to order by the acting president, Senator (Jake) Knotts.”

In fact, according to the Journal, a total of four bills were given third reading last Friday and all moved forward with unanimous consent. (Perhaps the unanimous aspect isn’t surprising given no legislators were on hand to vote otherwise.)

No, what really occurred was a phantom session, which enabled legislators to push several bills forward before a key deadline.

The four bills in question – S. 1323, along with S. 958 (involving humane treatment of animals), S. 1390 (concerning campaign finance reporting) and S. 1392 (having to do with specialty license plates) – all passed second reading Thursday and were then ordered to a third and final reading, to be held the following day.

The reason the phantom session was held was so that the bills would meet a May 1 crossover deadline. The crossover deadline means that bills not passed from one chamber to the other by May 1 would have needed two-thirds approval for the other chamber to even consider them.

“This is one of the devious ways in which the General Assembly works, and it raises in the public’s mind serious questions about the integrity and legitimacy of the legislative process when these kinds of games are played,” said John Crangle, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina.

“I think this is just another argument for the need for additional transparency in voting, something the Senate has been very resistant to,” he added. “The House has shown itself willing to work toward becoming more transparent, but the Senate holds themselves out as wise men, doing work that the rest of us can’t possibly understand.”

Neither Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, nor Knotts, R-Lexington, returned calls from The Nerve seeking comment.

The most far-reaching of the four bills is S. 1323. It would create a 15-member committee controlled by the Legislature. Sponsored by Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, it would receive state funds “as appropriated by the General Assembly.”

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, one of the bill’s seven co-sponsors, has said he wants to funnel $3.5 million annually out of the Senate’s proposed 50-cent hike in the state’s cigarette tax to the proposed authority.

The purpose of the group would be to “carry out economic development and educational improvement activities, which, in the opinion of the authority, will improve economic conditions in its member counties,” the bill says.

The bill doesn’t specify the types of economic development incentives that the authority could offer, though it would allow the authority to lease or buy and sell land, and to enter into contracts with individuals, businesses and private or public “entities” that are “considered desirable in the furtherance of (the authority’s) purpose.”

So, the Senate is attempting to create another state agency but provides no details on how much in taxpayer funding it would receive, what specific means it would embrace to improve conditions along the I-95 corridor, or what types of economic development incentives it could offer.

S. 1323, in other words, though passed in a phantom session, is anything but transparent.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or at kevin@scpolicycouncil.com.

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