COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s 2021 Legislative session opens with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and plenty of issues still looming that got set aside when the pandemic started last spring and brought most of the General Assembly’s work to a halt.
Lawmakers plan to meet in person and promise protocols to keep people safe, even with record number of COVID-19 cases being reported in the state in the past few weeks. Lawmakers are scheduled to meet for 18 weeks starting Tuesday.
It will be the 124th time the General Assembly has met for a two-year session. This year is the first year of the session, so all bills will have to start from the beginning.
The session will look like no other because of the pandemic.
Senate President Harvey Peeler said all 46 senators have agreed to wear masks while on the Senate floor and in meeting rooms or common areas of their office building. The Senate Sergeant-At-Arms has the authority to make sure everyone else wears a mask. The pandemic is a special concern in a chamber where 22 members are 60 or older.
House Speaker Jay Lucas is strongly encouraging members to wear masks, but several of the 124 members did not have face coverings inside the cramped chamber during the December organizational session, leading to COVID-19 cases among new and veteran lawmakers.
Employees were especially frustrated with maskless House members, Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said.
“If anybody wants to sit in a crowded room and be stupid and not wear a mask, that’s on them. But they shouldn’t spread it to a staff member,” the Columbia Democrat said.
COVID-19 means no large groups like high school championship teams visiting the Statehouse for at least a few months.
The South Carolina Senate took a decided lurch to the right after the November elections. Republicans flipped three seats and now make up 30 of the 46 senators, the most they have ever had in modern times.
The Democratic senators who lost were more moderate too.
Senate rules allow one senator plenty of power to prevent a bill from passing and the chamber has long been respectful of other members, but too much obstruction could mean rule changes or more frequent use of votes to limit debate.
The Democratic senators also have a new leader as Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg takes over as Minority Leader after Sen. Nikki Setzler stepped aside from the leadership role. Hutto promised to seek consensus like Setzler, but in his 25-year legislative career, Hutto has also shown skill in backing down Republicans through filibusters or other maneuvers.
There are fewer changes in the House. Republicans did gain two seats. But the leadership remains the same outside of Republican Rep. Chris Murphy of North Charleston, who became House Judiciary Chairman after Pete McCoy left the Legislature to become South Carolina’s U.S. attorney.
The House and Senate each passed their own massive education overhaul bills, but COVID-19 arrived before leaders in the two chambers could hash out their differences.
Possible pay raises for teachers — if the budget allows — would be low-hanging fruit. Bigger reforms may need more time and perhaps the relaxing of pandemic social distancing requirements so lawmakers can more easily hold hearings and negotiate.
Both House and Senate subcommittees have already held hearings on state-owned utility Santee Cooper before the session began. House members hold out hope they can sell the utility to a private company, while senators have said that option is likely off the table.
House and Senate leaders agree Santee Cooper needs a heavy-handed overhaul that starts with seeping out the board and executives. House Majority Leader Shane Massey said there are good, smart employees at Santee Cooper, but way too many entrenched employees resistant to change.
“I’m convinced it needs to be a total housecleaning. I think a culture has been created at Santee Cooper where they hide stuff,” the Edgefield Republican said.
Almost every year recently, South Carolina lawmakers debated abortion. More restrictions pass the House, but fail in the Senate.
This year might be different with more conservatives in the Senate and with two new, conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court improving the chances a law with stricter limits on abortion could stand a court challenge.
House Democrats have vowed to fight harder this year since the Senate Democrats lost key seats.
SOME NEW THINGS
Look for lawmakers to take up COVID-19 matters early, including getting in-person classes five days a week for any children whose parents want them and a discussion about a ban on people suing businesses claiming they got sick either as a worker or a customer, although that bill’s chances are dicey.
In the House, there will be plenty of discussion about criminal justice reform after Lucas made it a priority following protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, killed when a police officer in Minnesota pressed down on his neck during an arrest last summer.
The bills would change law enforcement training, sentencing guidelines and put stricter rules on how police agencies can take property used in illegal acts.
But the centerpiece is a state hate crimes law adding penalties to anyone who kills, assaults or damages the property of someone based on race, religion, sexual orientation or other factors. Only South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas don’t have the laws.
There has been a lot of support from a broad range of House members during the fall. But more conservative Republicans have suggested they want the enhanced penalties to be extended to people who attack police officers because of their jobs.
And lawmakers will pay careful attention to the once-a-decade process of drawing new district lines for state House and Senate and U.S. House seats when the U.S. Census data is released later this year. South Carolina’s population is expected to be well over 5 million — adding some 500,000 people in the past 10 years. The state did add a U.S. House seat in 2010.