By Robert Kittle
South Carolina lawmakers are one week into their new legislative session and are focused on the issues they think are most important: improving computer security after a hacker stole personal information from taxpayers at the state Department of Revenue; fixing crumbling roads and bridges; deciding whether to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act; and how much to spend on the state's public schools.
But two lawsuits that the state Supreme Court could rule on at any time could completely alter the legislature's agenda, how much you pay in taxes, and how much money goes to your local schools.
One of the lawsuits is over whether the state's various sales tax exemptions are constitutional. For example, right now you don't pay sales tax on things like gasoline, newspapers, gym memberships and manicures. They total more than $3 billion. If the Supreme Court were to rule that those exemptions are unconstitutional, lawmakers would have to either get rid of the exemptions or pass new laws to make them constitutional.
The second lawsuit is over school funding. Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, Senate president pro tempore, says about that Supreme Court case, "Forty school districts have sued the state that we're not providing adequate funding. And if they (the Supreme Court) rule on that one adverse to the state, we could be here probably to Thanksgiving." Lawmakers would have to completely rework school funding, which could affect how much your local schools get.
Since this is the first year of the two-year session, progress is slow in the first few weeks. Bills must first be introduced and assigned to a committee. The committees then assign them to subcommittees, which then meet to start working on the bills. A bill has to pass in subcommittee, and then go to a full committee. If it passes there, it goes to the full House or Senate, where it's vote on again. If it passes there, it then goes to the other chamber and starts over.
So while the House introduced more than 300 bills during the first week of the session, there hasn't been action on them. The Senate Judiciary Committee did pass a bill to fix an election law mistake that caused 250 candidates to be kicked off the ballot last year. It also passed a bill to close a loophole and clarify that "internet sweepstakes" machines are illegal. Both bills now go to the full Senate.
House minority leader Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, says one of the first big issues likely to come up in the House is a bill to nullify the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He says he doesn't understand why the Republican sponsors of the bill think the state can pass a law that negates a federal law that's been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Affordable Care Act would expand the number of people on Medicaid. Rep. Rutherford says, "We have the opportunity in South Carolina to expand Medicaid to cover 300,000 more individuals. It's got an $11.6 billion impact on South Carolina, not to mention hundreds of jobs that are impacted by it if we can expand Medicaid and cover more people. And the Republicans, simply, at this point don't want to do it."
Sen. Courson says there's a simple reason the Republicans don't want to do it. "My concern on that is Medicaid spending in South Carolina, just in South Carolina, has doubled in the past 10 years, and it's taken up just about every new dollar we get," he says. "And I chair the Education Committee and I think education is our primary responsibility as far as state government, and I would hate to see us get involved in expanding Medicaid again."
There's been no action yet on how to improve the state's roads and bridges, which Republicans and Democrats agree is a major issue for the session. Democrats want all options on the table for finding more money for roads, including possibly raising the state gas tax, which is fourth-lowest in the nation at 16 cents a gallon.
But Republicans are against raising the gas tax. Sen. Courson says Republicans are looking at a plan to take all the money collected from the sales tax on cars and trucks and send that money to the DOT for roads. But that would mean about $132 million less in the general fund for things like education, state troopers and health care.