FEATURE ‌ The Mad Dash 

Hot-button issues have the legislature running in every direction

It was just four months ago when we predicted a long, drawn-out, boring legislative session. Oh, what fools we were. Vouchers and public prayer bounced back into the picture, and there were new plans for universal wireless and a mandatory picture show for women considering abortions. Meanwhile, the two measures you could see coming down the pike even last year, Transportation Department reforms and a statewide smoking ban, are still bogged down, with no promise they'll be on the governor's desk by the end of the session in early June.

It was just four months ago when we predicted a long, drawn-out, boring legislative session. Oh, what fools we were. Vouchers and public prayer bounced back into the picture, and there were new plans for universal wireless and a mandatory picture show for women considering abortions. Meanwhile, the two measures you could see coming down the pike even last year, Transportation Department reforms and a statewide smoking ban, are still bogged down, with no promise they'll be on the governor's desk by the end of the session in early June.

Take Your Pick

The school choice plan pressed hard by new State Superintendent Jim Rex (H. 3124) seemed to be on the fast track, but it has hit a snag in Senate debate. The bill would allow students to pick the public school of their dreams, regardless of district boundaries and attendance zones, as long as space is available. But senators who have pressed in the past for school vouchers are looking to pair the school choice plan with a provision to subsidize the cost of a private school if the school of choice is full. While the bill could still make it to the governor's desk by the end of the session, it's not going to happen with vouchers hanging on the coattails.

A Lot Like a Prayer

A bill that would provide guidelines for local governing bodies regarding an opening prayer (S. 638) was introduced in the Senate last month and could be set for a vote by the end of the session, though it likely wouldn't be taken up by the House until 2008. The opening prayer would be considered an "invocation" and "must not be exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief." The law would also allow a public body to come up with its own guidelines.

Smokers Lunge

Introduced at the beginning of the session, the smoking ban bill sat in subcommittee until mid-April, when it made it on to the Senate calendar. But it's remained there since without a vote, thanks to stonewalling by Rep. Robert Ford (D-Charleston). The bill has left a lot of people unsatisfied. Charleston City Council members, who approved their own smoking ban for bars and restaurants in January, would be forced to allow smoking in bars under the state bill. Restaurant owners statewide would have to put out their patrons' cigarettes, even if the local municipality has kept out of the smoking issue. If the bill makes it out of the Senate this year, it's near-impossible that it will be taken up by the House until 2008. With Charleston's smoking ban beginning in July, local bars should prepare for the worst: clean air.

Meanwhile, the hike in the cigarette tax from a nationwide low of 7 cents to a more reasonable 30 cents was approved by the House earlier this month, with revenues paying for further cuts in the sales tax on groceries. But both the amount and what the money's spent on could change before it gets to the governor's desk. The two houses may not be able to resolve this by the end of the session, but smokers should start saving their pennies — it's inevitable.

Wireless Loading, Please Wait

Despite downtown's Wi-Fi cloud never materializing, legislators entered the fray undaunted this spring with their own plans to create a statewide wireless system. Sure, it's never been done before, but South Carolina is nothing if not innovative (take that for fact or sarcasm, it's up to you). Both the House and the Senate introduced resolutions that would create a wireless communications commission to implement (note: not study or recommend, but implement) a statewide wireless broadband network. The resolution received overwhelming support in the House and is under consideration by a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee.

Ultraunsound

The moralistic steam engine of the spring that was the ultrasound bill seems to have all but come to a stop. Introduced in the House in January, the bill would require women seeking abortions to view the ultrasound of the fetus prior to the procedure. The bill left the House as a host of supporters and others scared to oppose it voted in support 91-23. In less than a month, the Senate Medical Affairs Committee had OK'd the plan and sent it out to the Senate floor for debate. But the bill hit a brick wall when, with all due respect to John Kerry, Attorney General Henry McMaster came out to say he was for the bill, but now was against it.

In committee hearings, McMaster said he saw no problem in requiring women to see the ultrasound, but he sent out a contrary opinion weeks later that it might be unconstitutional to mandate that they look at anything. Instead, he said the language should be changed to make it clear that viewing the ultrasound would be an option for the mother and not a requirement. If there's one thing that can sidetrack a fast-moving bill, it's confusion. So, there it sits on the Senate calendar. But there's still a possibility the bill will make it to the floor for debate by the end of the session.

Off-Road DOT Reform

A scathing assessment of the Department of Transportation in November, claiming mismanagement and millions of dollars wasted, was all the encouragement the legislature needed for whole-hog reconstruction of the department's executive board. But the devil, in fact, is in the details and the legislature is having a tough time coming to an agreement on who should be driving this car. Some are prepared to give the wheel to the governor, but others say the legislature needs a strong role in determining where road money is spent. The House has threatened to stall budget talks until the Senate comes to an agreeable solution, but it's unclear whether that can happen in the few short weeks left.

Update on the zingers

In January, we offered up a short list of legislative zingers — bills so bizarre they were destined for a long struggle or instant failure. Here's the latest:

• H. 3108 — Prohibits state employees from screening their calls: On hold in the House Ways and Means Committee.

• H. 3083 — Prohibits drivers under 18 from talking on their cell phones: In the slow lane in the House Judiciary Committee.

• H. 3046 — Assures restaurants are not held responsible for their fat patrons: The bill has added three co-sponsors (six total), but hasn't moved from the House Judiciary Committee.

• S. 124 — Establishes Confederate Memorial Month: The bill has been referred to a Senate Judicial Subcommittee and a companion bill has been introduced in the House with 11 cosponsors, including Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper and Lowcountry legislator Chip Limehouse.

• S. 63 — Makes "disseminating profanity to a minor" a felony punishable by up to $5,000 or five years in jail: Referred to a Senate Judicial Subcommittee.


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