COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers return to the State House on Tuesday facing most of the same big issues that were hovering around in 2019.
The state budget that begins in July will also likely have $1.8 billion in additional money. State agencies, very aware of the flush times, have already made requests far exceeding that amount, and lawmakers will have to prioritize.
This is the second year of the two-year session, so bills remain in the same place they were when lawmakers went home last May.
And 2020 is an election year for all 124 House members and 46 senators. Candidates file to run in mid-March with primaries in June. Reelection considerations can also make a difference, especially with more controversial issues like guns or abortion.
Here are the biggest issues the South Carolina Legislature is likely to tackle in 2020.
Gov. Henry McMaster and leaders in both the House and Senate vow overhauling the public education system is their biggest issue in 2020. They made the same promises in 2019.
Last year, lawmakers set aside $160 million for raises for teachers, who got at least a 4% bump in pay. The House passed a massive bill in March to overhaul the education system, but senators spent the rest of the year dissecting it and likely reducing some of its impact. Their bill will be debated this week.
Sen. Ross Turner said the 60-plus page bill is now more like cleaning the engine of a poorly running car and doesn't make the big changes to early childhood education many feel are vital.
“I think in the end we'll improve South Carolina education a good deal this year but I think it's going to take three or four bills to get us there," the Republican from Greenville said.
Those bills may deal with class sizes, a teacher's bill of rights allowing them to speak out without fear of retribution and perhaps the contentious issue of vouchers, allowing parents to spend public school money to send children to private schools or programs.
Teacher pay will also be discussed again. The governor suggested an across the board $3,000 raise for all teachers and was backed by House Speaker Jay Lucas.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree wants to debate sending a pool of money to each school district for raises and let them decide what to do with a few rules. The Horry County Republican suggested one district might want to pay its special education teachers more and another might need some extra money to get a top notch physics teacher.
“We've got plenty of work to do,” Hembree said. “It's not going to run out."
Teacher group SC for Ed grew in less than a year from a Facebook group of a few dozen teachers talking about problems in their profession to a force that got 10,000 people to march of the State House in May, even causing a few districts to close because so many teachers were absent.
The group is carefully watching lawmakers again this year and set a March 17 deadline for their most important goals to be met or they will have to take more action.
A few lawmakers are warning state workers may be the next to march on the State House because they felt ignored.
While teachers got at least a 4% raise in 2019, state employees were given a 2% raise and a $600 bonus if they made less than $50,000 a year.
It was a rare raise for state employees. who have only seen a handful of pay bumps since 2008's Great Recession and many say the extra pay hasn't come close to keeping up with the cost of living.
“I support teacher increases in pay. But my heart breaks even more for state employees because their song is never played and their voices appear to be never heard," said Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg.
Sometime between mid-January and mid-March, state officials will release a report detailing private bids to buy or manage state-owned utility Santee Cooper. And a lot of State House business will suddenly stop.
Santee Cooper is about $8 billion in debt, with about half of that coming from the utility’s minority stake in two nuclear reactors that were never finished.
Lawmakers passed a bill to c onsider selling the utility so the state isn't stuck with the debt. Santee Cooper officials spent much of last year working on a plan to show they can improve without being sold.
About 500,000 people in South Carolina get their power directly from Santee Cooper and an additional 1.5 million get their power from electric cooperatives that buy their power from Santee Cooper and can end that contract if the utility is sold and they don't like the terms.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey made headlines on Thursday when he said senators don't have the votes to pass a bill that would ban nearly all abortions in South Carolina.
But Massey has been hinting at that since lawmakers left the abortion bill in the air in May.
The “Fetal Heartbeat Protection from Abortion Act" would make make almost all abortions illegal once fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks after conception. Several similarly conservative states have passed similar bills, but they are all tied up in court.
Abortion discussions pop up each year in South Carolina and even if the bill isn't debated, abortion will likely appear in the budget where the rules for discussion are more relaxed.
But Massey, a Republican from Edgefield, does not want to see a repeat of 2018, when debate on similar abortion restrictions bogged down the Senate for days as Democrats filibustered. It did not pass and caused hard feelings among Republicans especially with more moderate senators hoping to stave off more conservatives challengers in a GOP primary.
“Y’all saw that movie two years ago,” Massey said. “I was a player in that movie. I did not like that."
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