SC politics briefing

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Welcome to your weekly South Carolina politics briefing, a newsletter curated by The State’s politics and government team.

SC poised to adopt open carry

After a more than 12-hour debate, the Republican-controlled Senate Thursday voted mostly down party lines to pass a House-sponsored bill that would give concealed weapons permit holders the right to carry hand guns in the open.

The bill, which Senate Democrats criticized as a blatant ploy to assuage a minority of Republican voters, now returns to the House, which is likely to reject the Senate’s changes, triggering a six-member joint panel to hammer out the differences.

The bill’s proponents say nothing in the state law would change aside from where you can carry on your body, and lawmakers pointed to 45 other states, including Georgia and North Carolina, where they have variations of open carry laws.

Opponents, which include gun-control advocates, doctors, top law enforcement leaders and members of the business community, have pointed to recent gun violence in the state and the potential that an expansion of the state’s gun laws could put police officers in a precarious position when responding to emergencies.

Gov. Henry McMaster has said he will sign any legislation that aims to protect Second Amendment rights.

SC finds path to resume executions

For the first time in years, South Carolina may soon be able to carry out an execution.

The House passed a bill Wednesday that would bring back the electric chair and introduce the firing squad as methods of execution for inmates condemned to death.

South Carolina hasn’t executed a death row inmate in a decade due to a shortage of lethal injection drugs, the current default method of execution. Presently, if an inmate chooses to die via lethal injection, the state cannot force them to die by another method.

The bill passed Wednesday by the House would change that, although it still has some small hurdles to cross. Because the House made minor changes to the bill the Senate approved in March, the upper chamber will have to decide whether to concur with those modifications. Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to sign the bill into law once it reaches his desk.

In an interesting twist, a group of pro-life Republican House members stood up to testify against the bill Wednesday, saying they couldn’t reconcile their pro-life views with the death penalty.

What else is in the budget bill?

In addition to voting on how much money to spend and what to spend it on, the annual budget bill included one-year provisions that have not gone through the traditional law making process.

Senators attached an amendment to prevent funding from going to Planned Parenthood because it offers abortion services. But some other provisions didn’t make the cut, including offering incentives for people to get the COVID-19 vaccine and whether to prevent transgender athletes from participating in sports that don’t correspond with the gender on their birth certificate.

School board removal bill nears passage

A bill that authorizes the state superintendent to remove local school boards in chronically low-performing districts and take over management of those districts indefinitely is on the verge of passage.

The proposal, which sharpens the teeth of an already controversial school improvement strategy, marks the latest turn in a decades-long debate over how to improve South Carolina’s lowest-performing public schools, which are typically in high poverty areas.

Proponents of the bill argue that underperforming school districts and the boards that control them should be held accountable for failing students, while opponents say it’s unfair to remove democratically elected officials who face long odds in overcoming a lack of resources and an unequal school funding formula.

The bill has bounced between the House and Senate in recent weeks as lawmakers hashed out minor differences, but members of both chambers now say they’re in agreement. Once the House concurs with the Senate’s latest amendment next week, the bill will head to the governor’s desk. Gov. Henry McMaster has not yet committed to signing it.

The Santee Cooper saga goes on

The SC House took a look at the Senate’s version of Santee Cooper reform and said it needed a committee to consider offers to purchase all or parts of the state-owned utility, if they come. It’s a provision the Senate chose to keep out.

As a result, the Senate did not concur with the House’s change, setting the stage for a conference committee on a reform plan for the agency that accrued billions of dollars in debt for a nuclear plant project that never produced a watt of electricity.

Serving on that conference committee: Speaker Jay Lucas, Ways and Means chairman Murrell Smith, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey and Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto.

For those keeping track, Massey was one of eight senators who wanted to explore a sale of Santee Cooper. That puts him in line with Lucas, Smith and Rutherford. So we’ll see if a provision to have a group of lawmakers consider offers for the utility makes it out of the conference committee.

SC Senate is cutting it close on hate crimes

While members of the House stressed that they wanted the state to pass a hate crimes bill this year, their colleagues on the other side of the lobby are cutting it close.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to send the House’s hate crime’s bill to the Senate floor by a very narrow vote.

The bill is now on the Senate calendar, but with three days left before Sine Die, the Senate has a number of pressing issues to deal with. Senators were pessimistic Tuesday about the bill passing this year, and a Democrat on Wednesday tried to have the bill recommitted to committee.

Buzz Bites

A joint committee on Wednesday picked up its review of a blistering audit of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice. This week’s hearing featured testimony from the Legislative Audit Council members who performed the audit, which found widespread problems with security, staffing and training at the agency. DJJ’s director and agency employees are expected to testify at a future panel.

Gov. Henry McMaster has ordered S.C.’s Department of Employment and Workforce to withdraw from the federal government’s pandemic unemployment programs starting June 30, saying the expansion of federal unemployment benefits has incentivized people to stay home rather than work.

The S.C. Department of Corrections has quietly reversed its longstanding practice of releasing names of newsworthy inmates who die in prison, or those who die in unusual circumstances.

Just two days after Lexington-Richland 5 school board members voted to do away with the district’s student masking requirement, district officials announced that students would still have to wear masks. At least for now. The back-and-forth comes as parents across the state challenge the S.C. Department of Education’s guidance on student masking, which Gov. Henry McMaster has called “ridiculous.”

In a matter of weeks, South Carolina has gone from being starved for COVID-19 vaccine to having access to far more doses than it needs. Vaccinations are down nearly 70% over the past four weeks and as a result the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control requested just a third of its available federal allotment this past week.

Despite failing twice in the House, the transgender athletes ban bill has been given new life in the Senate. Nearly half of the chamber has sponsored the bill, which got its first subcommittee hearing Thursday.

Cook Political Report shifted its forecast for the governor’s race from “solidly Republican” to “likely Republican.”

A California wine giant’s $400 million bottling and distribution plant, slated for 640 acres in Chester County, won a key victory after the South Carolina House passed legislation giving the company three off-site tasting rooms.

A congratulations to House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, who is expecting a baby boy with wife, Megan, by the end of September. Rutherford’s fellow Ways and Means members teased Rutherford for having a child at the age of 50, and joking they would consider “a tax credit for geriatric fathers in Richland County,” as state Rep. Nathan Ballentine said.

Gov. Henry McMaster tapped veteran Republican political strategist Mark Knoop to head his 2022 reelection campaign, as still no primary challenger has publicly announced a bid to run against the incumbent next summer.

South Carolina’s top law enforcement agency has launched an investigation into fired State Accident Fund director Amy Cofield and the role she played in her husband landing a $600,000 work contract with her former agency, a department spokesman confirmed.

For your planning purposes

May 13

SC Legislature’s work session ends, otherwise known as sine die

May 17

New deadline for individual state income tax returns for the 2020 year

Before we adjourn

South Carolina health officials this week made a slight tweak to the way they present the daily number of COVID-19 cases in the state. Rather than separating out the number of “confirmed” cases from the number of “probable” cases, as DHEC has done since the beginning of the pandemic, the agency now reports confirmed and probable cases as a single number.

Assistant state epidemiologist Jane Kelly explained that the agency felt South Carolinians weren’t paying enough mind to probable cases, which have come to represent a larger share of all cases in recent weeks.

“What we’re finding is that people seem to be focusing just on the confirmed and not attending to the probable cases, when really they should be focused on the total number,” she said. “A probable case is a case of COVID-19.”

The distinction between confirmed and probable cases — which isn’t apparent unless you read DHEC’s website — is that probable cases are ones diagnosed using antigen tests (rapid tests). The reason a positive rapid test result is categorized as a probable positive is because those tests aren’t as sensitive as the “gold standard” molecular or PCR tests.

They are, however, widely used and considered accurate for screening symptomatic individuals early in their infection. Someone who tests positive using a rapid test should be considered infected with COVID-19, health experts say.

Kelly said DHEC changed the way it reports COVID-19 cases because more people are turning to rapid tests for their diagnosis and should understand that.

Who pulled together this week’s newsletter?

This week it was reporter Zak Koeske, a member of The State’s government and politics team who currently focuses on South Carolina’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Keep up with him on Twitter @ZakKoeske or send him story tips at zkoeske@thestate.com.

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For even more South Carolina-focused political news, you can chat with us on Facebook at the Buzz on South Carolina Politics, email us tips at thebuzz [at] thestate [dot] com and follow our stories at scpolitics.com.

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