Gov. Mark Sanford called this year’s legislative session a success for South Carolinians even though only a few key proposals debated during the past five months will become law this year.
Sanford praised bills designed to curb skyrocketing home insurance premiums along the coast and create a state-run online school program. He also applauded a measure directing the state to work with Georgia in developing a massive shipping terminal on the Savannah River.
But many proposals were defeated including a smoking ban in restaurants statewide, more restrictions on the payday lending industry and tougher drunken driving laws. And South Carolina still has the nation’s lowest cigarette tax.
Sanford noted it was the first part of a two-year session, meaning many bills won’t have to be reintroduced next year.
“In essence, we’re at the halfway mark,” he said. “There are some absolute clear wins.”
He praised passage of a bill refusing to comply to the federal Real ID Act and meet its 2009 deadline. Not participating means residents won’t be forced to stand in long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles for a new national driver’s license, and the state – among several to reject the measure – won’t be footing the bill for a federal mandate, he said.
Chief among Sanford’s disappointments included the scuttling of efforts to restructure state government and give governors the ability to appoint several statewide offices now elected by voters.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said “the biggest successes are yet to come.”
The regular session ended June 7 without lawmakers adopting a state budget. They will return June 19 to work on a compromise.
Harrell has refused to let the House sign off on the $7.4 billion spending plan before the chambers agree on how to reform the state Transportation Department and the workers’ compensation system.
“This session has the potential to be one of the strongest reform sessions we’ve ever had, if we can get these last couple of issues dealt with,” he said.
An agreement on workers’ compensation, meant to reduce business costs, was reached minutes before session adjourned and is expected to be approved when legislators return for the special three-day session. A compromise on DOT reform, however, is far from certain.
If the verbal agreement on the budget holds, taxpayers will get $176 million in relief, with the sales tax on groceries dropping from 3 cents on the dollar to 1 cent beginning Nov. 1. They would also receive income tax cut relief, but it’s unclear whether that will benefit only top earners or every taxpayer.
Harrell said he remained adamant about holding up the budget for reform. Either the House and Senate will agree or state government funding will continue at current levels when the fiscal year starts July 1.
“The House is comfortable with either outlook,” Harrell said.
Sanford, who repeatedly advocates limiting government spending, also believes it’s OK if the budget isn’t adopted. The $1.5 billion in expected new revenue could serve as a cushion for any economic downturn, he said.
But Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said that wasn’t a good way to do business.
“A continuing resolution means no tax cuts, no money for school buses, no money for a port access road,” he said. “State employees are confronting higher gas prices but no cost-of-living increase. They suffer. A lot of things just don’t happen.”
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