Editorial: Lawmakers have made surprising progress on several fronts, but there is still much to do | Editorials
It was an ambitious to-do list for the SC’s 2022 legislative session. You might even call it an ambitious agenda: enact reforms that will help our state provide a decent education for all children; protect our natural resources; keep us safe; cracking down on corruption; buy big things; empower cities and counties.
But in a state that’s far from reaching its potential, all of these components are necessary – and achievable. And by the time lawmakers adjourned Thursday after a regular session that often veered off course, they had made surprising progress in nearly all six areas.
In the weeks ahead, House-Senate conference committees will have an opportunity to improve the record, particularly but not exclusively on education, and they must deliver on their promises. Here is a recap of the state of affairs as we enter the negotiation period which culminates in a brief return to Colombia in a month to sign any new agreements:
• Educate all children. Our state has no more important duty than educating the next generation, and a big part of that is making sure that all children – but especially the poorest – have good teachers. A nationwide teacher shortage makes this increasingly difficult, and South Carolina’s well-below-average teacher salaries compound the problem.
The budget passed by the House raises the minimum salary for all teachers by $4,000, bringing starting salaries to $40,000; districts already paying the minimum will decide whether to exceed it. The Senate budget provides the same amount of money for schools, but only guarantees $2,000 more because it distributes less money through a new formula that favors poorer students. Either plan would be an improvement, but there is no reason to reject the House version.
Lawmakers also gave the governor the power to remove school board members accused of crimes, as he can with local officials (S.203), and lawmakers on Wednesday signed into law a long-promised measure to ensure teachers primary 30 minutes of free time. hour during the school day (S.946).
• Protect our natural resources. Lawmakers allocated $800 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to improve rural water and sewage systems, which have endangered lives and hindered economic development (H.4408). They have also invested money from the regular state budget to help the SC Conservation Bank conserve the special lands we want to protect from development and other potential threats – the amount will be determined by the conference committee. – and signed S.152 on Wednesday, which allows counties to impose a 1% sales tax to fund local land purchases so we can enjoy the outdoors and ensure the continued health of our diverse flora and fauna . And in a surprise move, a left-for-dead measure to regulate ocean-polluting plastic nurdles was attached to H.4475, which expands the state’s e-waste recycling program; it is now up to the conference committee.
Although lawmakers started the year by passing S.525, which allows so-called “advanced recycling” companies to melt down plastic waste, conservationists managed to add provisions allowing DHEC to hold account of license applicants’ compliance history and to require applicants to post a link, making South Carolina the first state to do so.
• Protect us. Procedural hurdles and the legislative clock have halted court solutions to a string of statewide shootings that have drawn public attention to what many see as a revolving door criminal justice system, but the House has added a pilot program to the budget to let Charleston police experiment with electronic monitoring of repeat offenders and another to launch a community-based violence response program. Lawmakers also took steps to prevent the growing backlog from getting worse, by creating an administrative process for people to request removal from the state’s sex offender registry (H.4075) just before the SC Supreme Court won’t let them all. start appealing to the courts.
More importantly, the Legislature finally passed a bill on Thursday requiring the SC Law Enforcement Training Council to establish minimum standards on the use of force, vehicle chases and identification of bad cops – standards that will facilitate the end of the career of the officers who violate them. . H.3050 also requires police to intervene when a co-worker is violent. And it restricts the use of chokeholds, ends the practice of letting uncertified officers act like real police, and imposes significant penalties on services that don’t comply. It’s not doing everything it needs to, but its impact could be even bigger than the body camera mandate that’s not yet fully funded.
• Repress corruption. Lawmakers have made the least headway on corruption, despite a steady stream of exposures from Post and Courier reporters about new cases of abuse by state and local officials and officials. They have ignored calls to strengthen our Ethics Act and our Open Records Act and to impose restraints on sheriffs – which means that abuses will continue to grow and the need for reforms will be even greater. next year.
The House and Senate on Thursday approved a bill to expand the state inspector general’s jurisdiction to include school districts; negotiators will have to work out the details of S.202 in the coming weeks. And the House and Senate budgets significantly increase funding for the Inspector General, but not as much as Governor Henry McMaster had requested. The House also slightly increased funding for the State Ethics Commission, but again not enough and without giving the agency the mandate or tools to do better.
• Buy great things. Sounds easy, because who doesn’t like to buy big things? The challenge, however, was to focus a record amount of money — and in particular the $2.5 billion in revenue from the American Rescue Plan Act — on a handful of major initiatives that can make a difference in our state. rather than pouring it on every legislator’s favorite pork. projects. There’s certainly some pork in the House budget — how much survives will largely depend on how much of the Senate’s $1 billion in one-time income tax refunds survives — but lawmakers have done good work in H.4408 focusing federal funds, allocating $2 billion to rural water and sewer projects, broadband internet connectivity, critical interstate improvements, a new public health laboratory and flood resilience projects.
Most of that money will be spent on local projects — some overseen by the same officials whose ethical issues have not been addressed by the Legislative Assembly — but it will be apportioned by professionals, using objective criteria , rather than lawmakers meeting behind the scenes.
• Empower local governments. One of our lawmakers’ favorite pastimes is meddling in how city and county council members run their communities, and this session saw more of that, including the law prohibiting them from requiring employees get vaccinated against COVID-19.
But the Senate managed to add language to S.233 on Wednesday that allows them to reimpose road charges that the SC Supreme Court ruled last year they had no authority to levy. It goes to the conference committee where the odds are against its survival, but at least time has passed on another version of the bill (S.984) that the House amended on Wednesday to punish them for banning short-term rentals and require a referendum before they collect new fees.