Message from SCICU President and CEO Jeff Perez –
If you were playing legislative poker, this session of the General Assembly would be a hand full of wild cards.
To begin, the General Assembly is confronted by two state budgets. South Carolina state government funding for the current fiscal year (2020-21) is still running under a continuing resolution based on the previous year’s (FY 2019-20) spending levels. There may be interest in amending the continuing resolution to raise current teacher salaries, but legislators must craft a state budget for 2021-22, and the uncertainty over revenues produced by an economy still reeling and recovering from COVID-19 makes committing further funds for this year a tricky proposition.
At least South Carolina is in the black, unlike other states that face stunning deficits. The Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) has reported the state will have an additional $1.2 billion in carryover revenue and other sources to work with. Before COVID-19 the BEA estimated the state’s additional revenue in excess of $1.9 billion. Of what remains, all but about $200 million is non-recurring money that can be spent only once. Likely a chunk of that will be put into a rainy day fund.
The governor last week presented his executive budget, which included good news for independent higher education. McMaster proposes a very generous increase of $20 million in lottery monies for the Tuition Grants Commission, which currently provides grants of up to $3,600 for qualifying South Carolina students attending private colleges and universities in the state. While the executive budget provides data and goals, its recommendations are not binding on the General Assembly, which is where the authority for drafting the state budget resides.
While legislators are trying to focus on the FY 2021-22 budget (and finish out FY 2020-21), they will be facing contentious issues that will demand considerable attention.
At the same time there will be a lot of on-the-job training. There are 21 new legislators in the General Assembly, out of a total 170, including three news Senate Republicans, lifting the GOP caucus to a 14-seat majority.
That expanded Republican majority may prove decisive as the General Assembly addresses re-districting. Every 10 years, armed with new census data, the districts of S.C. House and Senate members are redrawn to maintain population balance – areas with increased populations get more legislators, while declining populations lose members. As the lines are redrawn, incumbent legislators don’t want to be told they no longer have a district, or, just as troublesome, are now living in a district with another legislator. Naturally, legislators want “safe” districts in which their party has a healthy majority of voters.
There will be a lot of jockeying for position. The redistricting process is both art and science, relying on sophisticated computer mapping and legislative leaders skilled at balancing priorities and personalities.
Whither Santee Cooper? Legislative leaders and the governor want to sell Santee Cooper, but a cohort of legislators remain loyal to the state-owned power agency. Previously, just one senator could bog down the legislative machinery by filibustering and introducing an avalanche of amendments. This session the Senate approved a new “cloture” rule allowing senators to limit amendments, as part of their motion to limit debate. Previously, any amendment filed before debate was closed had to be considered.
Legislators will also be looking for state relief to help businesses recover from COVID-19. They would like to see small business grants and some seek limited liability protection from COVID-related lawsuits. And there is great interest, particularly in tourism-driven regions, to lift the remaining restrictions, including the 11 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales in bars and restaurants.
The very emotional issue of abortion and S.1 – the “fetal heartbeat” bill – will also demand significant attention from the General Assembly.
And, in the midst of it all, the General Assembly still must contend with COVID-19 and taking the precautions necessary to keep legislators, staff, and the public safe.
We’ll see how this legislative hand plays out.