State Sen. Brad Hutto was smirking when he told the members of the media who had come to this year's Statehouse legislative workshop that the very first order of business in the Senate would be a bill allowing South Carolinians to bring firearms into bars.
"It is what it is," Hutto, a Democrat from Orangeburg, said about the bill that passed the House last year. He sighed when he spoke. "It's not like we planned to put it on the calendar first, it just happens to be. My only thing was, my goodness, with all of the things we've got to debate that could make a positive impact on citizens' lives in South Carolina."
He added, "But we'll do this, and it will get its few hours of fame."
Although Hutto wishes that his fellow legislators could set the tone for the new session by addressing issues that could make a difference in peoples' lives, he says he not only expects the bill to pass, he'll probably vote for it.
There are, of course, some serious issues on the agenda. Like what political leaders might do about the roughly 200,000 South Carolinians who are caught in a health insurance coverage gap in which they're too poor to qualify for the federal Affordable Care Act but aren't eligible to enroll in the state Medicaid program, which Gov. Nikki Haley chose not to expand. Or whether 2014 will be a big year for improving public education and passing meaningful ethics reform.
Along with the new conceal and carry bill, here are a few other issues which may get some attention inside the Statehouse this is year.
Across the nation, state legislatures are already openly debating medical marijuana and pot decriminalization. Here in South Carolina, lawmakers admit they've been discussing the two issues behind the scenes.
Orangeburg Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter says she's been talking to Republican House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White of Anderson and GOP Rep. Murrell Smith of Sumter about it from the standpoint of revenue generation.
"What I think we ought to recognize is that there is room in this state and in this country for decriminalization," she said. "I would like to see us get to a point where we connect the dots in South Carolina, the marriage between Tea Party conservatives and libertarians and those who believe that marijuana should not result in somebody's life being destroyed based on simple possession."
On the Republican side, Smith said lawmakers passed sentencing reform in 2010, which led to smart changes like sending nonviolent offenders to drug courts instead of prison. For Smith, pot legalization in the Palmetto State is a "tall order." "We're watching and seeing what the results are in Colorado," he says. Simple possession of marijuana, he notes, can now be expunged from a South Carolinian's record, while possession of drug paraphernalia is only a civil fine.
House Democratic Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia plans to introduce a measure that would allow the state's heath agency to do what he says it is allowed to by law regarding medical marijuana.
"South Carolina legalized medical marijuana in 1982. We simply didn't fund it," he said. "DHEC has put a cost on [funding] it of $450 million. I don't know where they're getting that number from, but either way I think that we can fix that bill and allow doctors to prescribe marijuana in this state that is grown by farmers in this state that received a certificate to grow it."
Rutherford said the time has come for people with chronic pain or who are undergoing chemotherapy to be able to use marijuana. "We're past time for decriminalizing marijuana, and I hope the rest of the General Assembly simply catches up with where I am," he said.
South Carolina is one of 23 states that has chosen not to expand its Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act, which has left roughly 200,000 residents uninsured. "In most cases we're talking about low-income working adults with no children," said Columbia Democratic Sen. Joel Lourie. On the other hand, Gov. Nikki Haley and state Health and Human Services director Tony Keck say the state can't afford to expand the program and have called Medicaid a broken system. Still Keck has touted that more people are signing up for Medicaid because they've found they're eligible for the first time.
While a debate on whether to expand Medicaid dominated the last session, lawmakers don't think it will this year. That's because it's not a priority for the state's hospital association, said GOP Rep. Murrell Smith. Lawmakers will, however, try to deal with mental health in prisons.
Although the Medicaid expansion debate has become a starkly political one defined by party, at least one Republican lawmaker is willing to break ranks. "As a fiscal conservative I'm not sure we've done the right thing," said Georgetown Rep. Ray Cleary, a doctor.
Recently, Gov. Haley laid out her education plan. It gives nearly $100 million to poverty-stricken students, nearly $30 million for updating broadband capabilities, and roughly $30 million to hire teaching coaches. Her plan will clash with a proposal by her likely Democratic rival for governor, Vincent Sheheen, who wants a statewide, government-funded 4-year-old kindergarten program. Previously, Haley has vetoed public school funding, and she has long been a champion of efforts to divert public money to private schools. But the divisive issue of school choice might be off the table this session. Lawmakers are waiting to see how a modest school choice measure passed last year pans out.
Anyone who travels on South Carolina's roads and bridges knows they're in pretty piss-poor shape. One longtime sticking point about how to generate revenue to fix them has been about whether to raise the state's gas tax — one of the lowest in the nation. Don't expect lawmakers to raise it this year. Instead, expect them to gripe about the way the Department of Transportation is structured.
Want to see a bunch of South Carolina lawmakers work their way into something of a human pretzel? Ask them how they plan to deal with ethics reform. Good government groups want it. Citizens want it. The media — probably more than anyone — wants it. After more than a year of debate, lawmakers still can't agree on who should investigate their behavior and how they'll handle anonymous political groups.
The way it works now, House and Senate members investigate themselves if someone files a complaint. The State Ethics Commission, an independent agency, investigates statewide officeholders like the governor and schools chief, and also local public officials like mayors and sheriffs. Good government groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of South Carolina don't want lawmakers policing themselves.
Another issue, lawmakers say, is whether they should be allowed to operate political action committees. Critics say such PACs spread money around in the shadows and allow politicians to amass political power and skirt campaign finance limits. Senators aren't allowed to have them, but House members are. Embattled Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston has been linked to perhaps the state's largest and most influential of such PACs, the pro-business Palmetto Leadership Council.
As it stands now, South Carolina's laws on political action groups are so lax that any lawmaker could operate a PAC without having to disclose it and no one would know unless an insider blew the whistle. Pickens GOP Sen. Larry Martin says a reform bill should force anyone who raises or spends money to influence an election to disclose how much they raised and spent.