Senate Passes Roll Call Voting Bill

March 18, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveFor advocates of roll call voting by members of the General Assembly, it’s been a long time coming.

The S.C. Senate passed a stand-alone roll call voting bill on Thursday. The bill is almost identical to roll call voting legislation the House passed in January, all but ensuring that a law requiring legislators to vote on the record is imminent.

The bill would require roll call votes on each section of the annual state budget and any bill or joint resolution having the force and effect of law.

The House still must concur with an insignificant language change the Senate made to the bill, but all indications suggest that the House will do so in short order.

This week, the House passed its version of a 2011-12 budget and then adjourned for furlough. The chamber is scheduled to reconvene on March 29.

“Today is a key victory for our voters and I’m confident my House colleagues will quickly approve [the revised bill] when we return to Columbia,” Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland and chief sponsor of the legislation, said in an e-mail to The Nerve after the Senate passed it.

If the House approves the bill it will then go to Gov. Nikki Haley. The bill would become law and take effect upon her signing it.

Haley made roll call voting her signature issue in seeking the governorship in her third and final term as a state representative in the 2009-10 legislative session.

In a statement after the Senate passed the bill she said, “This is an exciting day for South Carolina. We have long said rules protect legislators; laws protect the people. Senate passage of this bill was a huge step forward to change the face of how we conduct business in our state in the eyes of the country.”

Haley’s reference to rules alludes to a point of contention the Senate focused on in debating the bill.

Some members of the chamber, led by Charleston Republican Sens. Chip Campsen and Glenn McConnell, the president pro tempore of the Senate, argued that a law mandating roll call voting would be unconstitutional because the S.C. Constitution – and only the constitution – gives each legislative chamber the authority to prescribe its own procedural rules.

“Not the [full] General Assembly, not the governor, not the courts – each body,” McConnell said Thursday in mounting one last effort to sway senators against the bill.

Members of the Campsen-McConnell camp say the constitution must first be amended to grant the Legislature authority to pass a roll call voting law, and that they support doing both – but in that order and encumbering a law to a constitutional amendment.

Ballentine also is sponsoring a constitutional amendment to that effect, H. 3285, which the House has passed and is pending in the Senate.

But, doing the heavy lifting to get a stand-alone bill through the Senate, Republican Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens prevailed in a big way. The bill passed the Senate by a three-fourths margin, 33-11, after members debated it for two full days and part of a third.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” Martin told The Nerve afterward, “and I think we were very successful in keeping the bill within the parameters [in the House version] that we started out with.”

Said Ballentine, “I want to thank the Senate, particularly Larry Martin, who worked tirelessly to keep the bill in the format the people of South Carolina asked for and deserve.”

Said Haley, “By passing this bill, the House and Senate clarify that we believe the people, not elected officials, are in charge. I want to personally thank Sen. Harvey Peeler, Sen. Larry Martin, and the senators who supported this bill for their courage, fight and humility.”

Ballentine, who also singled out Peeler for thanking, described a long effort to get a roll call voting law.

“This process started almost three years ago when, on a voice vote, a cost-of-living adjustment for legislators was approved,” Ballentine said in his e-mail. “Immediately then-state Rep. Haley knew we had to change the process so that voters would know exactly how their elected officials voted on important issues.

“Over the past few years, our citizens have become more engaged in the political process and understand the importance their voice has in reforming state government. This is one of the many ways they can continue to impact our state going forward. Grassroots [supporters] deserve a huge thank you today, as well!”

Even if passage of the bill into law is a foregone conclusion, however, that is unlikely to put the roll call voting issue to rest.

Senators who object to a stand-alone law on constitutional grounds warned Thursday of, among other pitfalls, a potential lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of it.

Said McConnell, who is an attorney, “What we’re doing is illegal.”

Martin disagrees, countering that the Senate changed its roll call voting rules earlier this session to conform to the bill. “I just think that [constitutional] argument, it would be somewhat valid if we enacted a statute that was appreciably different from our rules.”

Like he ushered the bill through the Senate, Martin also sponsored the rules change to require roll call voting in the chamber much more often. “I became convinced that the public really wanted us to act,” he says.

But to settle the constitutional issue, Martin says he is optimistic that the Senate will take up the proposed amendment pending before the body, although probably not until next year because other pressing matters dominate the chamber’s agenda.

In the meantime, champions of a roll call voting law are savoring a victory evidently close at hand.

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