Lots of money to spend as SC lawmakers start 2022 session
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers return to Columbia on Tuesday with a lot of money to spend.
The booming economy is adding about $1 billion in taxes likely to continue to be collected yearly to the nearly $11 billion budget the Legislature controls.
The state also is getting about $3 billion from the federal government in COVID-19 relief and money the U.S. government agreed to pay the state when it missed a deadline to get nuclear material out of the Savannah River Site near Aiken.
And there is $1 billion in money after the state closed the books on the past fiscal year, set aside in case the economy crashed because of the pandemic.
There are lots of suggestions how to spend that money, including plenty of debate on road expansion and improvement.
Gov. Henry McMaster has already suggested spending $360 million to jumpstart a project to widen the remaining 70 miles (113 kilometers) of two-lane Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia to three lanes. He also wants lawmakers to pay $300 million to build t he long proposed Interstate 73 expressway connection to Myrtle Beach.
Other suggestions include hundreds of millions for improving water and sewer systems and getting broadband internet access to rural areas of South Carolina so they can boom like the coast and areas around Greenville and south of Charlotte, North Carolina.
State employees will likely want another raise. Teachers salaries will be debated as more jobs became vacant during the pandemic. State health officials want a new lab. There are state buildings that need long-term repairs.
Looming over it all will likely be debate on taxes. In recent years, Republicans have considered rebates. With all the money, it may be the right opportunity to begin debate on cutting taxes or overhauling the state’s entire tax system.
The House started had a number of committee meetings about that in 2019, but they were derailed the next year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
One thing to remember with all legislation this year — this is the second year of the General Assembly’s two-year session. Any bill not passed dies when the session ends in May.
Other developments expected in this year’s session:
South Carolina opens 2022 alongside Wyoming as the only states without their own hate crimes law.
After fits and starts, the House passed a bill in 2021 that would allow prosecutors to ask the same jury that convicted someone for extra punishment for a violent crime based on the race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability of the victim.
The Senate got the bill at the end of its session and waited until 2022 to act.
There may be changes and lots of debate. Supporters were dismayed when the House removed additional punishments for nonviolent crimes such as vandalism and harassment, saying someone who does something like paint a swastika on a synagogue is trying to hurt an entire community, not just ruin a wall.
Senate Republican leaders promised one of their own colleagues they will debate his medical marijuana bill this year.
Sen. Tom Davis has spend much of his 12 years in the chamber pushing his proposal. The current bill would require a doctor to meet with a patient in person before prescribing marijuana, check for any history of substance abuse and have a written treatment plan. The proposal specifies the illnesses that be treated including cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, sickle cell anemia and autism.
A number of law enforcement officials remain against the bill.
The state Senate and House passed their own new district maps, redrawn after the 2020 U.S. Census found South Carolina added 500,000 people to top 5.1 million in population.
But they haven’t finished maps for U.S. House districts. Opponents said the proposed maps dilute minority voting strength by pulling more Black voters out of the coastal 1st District in Charleston and Hilton Head Island and putting them into the 6th District, which has a majority of minority voters and stretches from Charleston to Columbia.
The most conservative House Republicans successfully pushed to get a bill banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates for state and local government employees, contractors and public school students into a special session over the reluctance of House leadership.
In 2022, they may try to continue to use their power to try to resurrect a proposal preventing transgender students from playing on girls’ sports teams in middle and high school.
Bills to outlaw abortions may also come up. The General Assembly in 2021 passed a law banning almost all abortions, which has been suspended from taking effect after a lawsuit.
Republican House members may also feel pressure from June primaries in their new districts, where if GOP incumbents are challenged it is often by more conservative opponents.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.