Senators Seek Alternatives to Roll-Call Voting

May 5, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveAlthough opposed to an S.C. House bill requiring increased roll-call voting in the Legislature, two senators are proposing a Senate rules change they say would eliminate any remaining anonymous voting in their chamber.

Under a resolution introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, each senator present for a voice vote – even if he is standing outside the chamber but not granted official leave – would be recorded as voting “yes” unless he informed the Senate clerk he wanted to vote “no.”

“It resolves any question now of whether we’re doing roll-call voting,” Martin told The Nerve last week.

“It would blanket cover everything not covered now by (Senate) Rule 16.”

Martin said the proposed rules change would cover uncontested bills and motions, which, with certain exceptions, are not specifically addressed in the current roll-call voting rules.

During a Senate floor debate April 22 on the related House bill, McConnell said the proposed resolution “requires recorded votes on everything” in the Senate.

McConnell attacked the House bill (H. 3047), which would, among other things, require roll-call votes in both chambers for any bill or joint resolution on second reading, each section of the budget bill on second reading, and passage of any bill or joint resolution on third reading if amended.

“We’ve already got mandated roll-call voting; we’ve already got transparency,” a visibly upset McConnell said. “It (H. 3047) is nothing more than a misguided, political maneuver on the people of South Carolina to get some headlines rather than headway.”

McConnell contended the bill, sponsored by Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, and which unanimously passed the House in March, is “clearly unconstitutional,” arguing that a proposed state law could not “trump the rule of this body or the House of Representatives.”

Recorded-voting changes could be made only by amending the S.C. Constitution or the Senate or House rules, he said.

Haley’s bill is scheduled to be discussed this morning during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing chaired by Martin. The bill had gotten nowhere in the subcommittee since passing the House on March 26. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, on April 22 tried and failed to move the bill directly to the Senate floor.

Contacted last week, Haley told The Nerve that she was undeterred by opposition from McConnell and Martin.

“A resolution is not permanent law,” she said. “It is one more way they are trying to get around voting on the record. … They’re either for on-the-record voting, or they’re not. They’re either for a permanent law, or they’re not.”

“The day some people say we can’t see how our legislators voted,” she continued, “that will be a sad day in South Carolina.”

Haley vowed that if her bill, which she described as “totally comprehensive,” continues to languish in Martin’s subcommittee, she will try to have it moved directly to the Senate floor.

A Rules Committee hearing on the resolution by Martin and McConnell has been scheduled for Thursday morning.

Martin reiterated his opposition to Haley’s bill and a companion bill (S. 11) introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, noting, “I’m not going to vote for this.”

Martin said if either Haley’s bill or Peeler’s bill became law, the Senate would comply with it, though he added that “under no circumstances would it be binding on a future Senate or a future House.”

The bills face an uphill climb in getting out of the Senate this year. Senate Judiciary subcommittee member Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, earlier told The Nerve that the Senate bill, though signed onto by half of the 46-member chamber, would never come up for a vote in the subcommittee.

The third member of the subcommittee, Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, told The Nerve last month he had not yet read either the House or Senate bill and would not comment on it until he reviewed them.

Martin earlier said the full Judiciary Committee – chaired by McConnell – likely wouldn’t consider the bill if opposed by a majority of the subcommittee.

The resolution by Martin and McConnell was introduced on April 15 – the same day The Nerve reported, citing analysis by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, that state lawmakers from the start of the legislation session on Jan. 12 through March 31 had cast roll-call votes only about 14 percent of the time.

If those voting patterns hold up through the end of the session, lawmakers will have cast joint-voice votes about 86 percent of the time. An earlier Policy Council study found that lawmakers voted anonymously 75 percent over the entire 2009 session.

A first-ever in-depth study by the Policy Council found that the Legislature in 2008 cast roll-call votes on passed bills and joint resolutions only 5 percent of the time, ranking South Carolina then as having the nation’s weakest recorded-voting requirements.

In response to that study, both the House and Senate strengthened their roll-call voting rules in January 2009. Under both the House and Senate changes, for example, roll-call votes are required for second reading of contested bills, third reading of amended bills and conference committee reports.

The Senate also changed its rules to mandate recorded votes for bills, whether contested or uncontested, authorizing expenditure of funds or with a fiscal impact of more than $10,000.

But the Senate this year has voted anonymously to place a number of bills on special order, which means they go to the top of the priority list for debate. Those include the following five high-profile bills, for which either Martin or McConnell made special-order motions:

  • H. 3305 – constitutional amendment for secret balloting in union elections (proposed by Martin on Feb. 11).
  • S. 2 – state spending limits (proposed by Martin on March 10).
  • H. 3584 – cigarette tax increase (proposed by Martin on March 25).
  • S. 1057 – home fire sprinkler requirements (proposed by Martin on March 30).
  • H. 3161 – court fee hikes (proposed by McConnell on March 31).

John Crangle, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, told The Nerve last week that senators have a particular interest in voting anonymously compared to House members, explaining that senatorial districts typically are more diverse because of their larger size.”They don’t want to be on-the-record voting for these controversial bills because they fear offending their constituencies,” he said.

Crangle said the Senate should have an electronic voting board to speed up roll-call voting, as the 124-member House already has. Asked why the Senate didn’t have a voting board, Martin said last week that the chamber considered it a couple of years ago but decided against it because of the estimated cost of $100,000.

“We don’t have the money,” he said. “I wouldn’t recommend laying off staff for that.”

The Nerve reported on Tuesday, meanwhile, that the Senate is proposing to increase its own budget for next fiscal year by more than $3 million, or at least 36 percent.

Martin said it was his understanding that a conduit for an electronic voting board was installed when the Senate chamber was renovated. Haley said a “$2,500 piece of software” could accomplish the same thing.

“First, they said it (the voting board) was too expensive. Then they said (changing the roll-call rules) would bog it down. Now, they say it (H. 3047) is unconstitutional ,” Haley said. “It’s one more excuse why they don’t vote on the record.”

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