At the end of each year, state lawmakers file a series of bills (known as “prefiles”) in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session. The following report looks at some of the most significant House prefiles, organized by category, as well as two bills gaining traction relating to state Coivd policy.
These bills offer a glimpse into some of next year’s spending priorities. Unsurprisingly, based on this sample, it seems the interests of legislators and state government are getting priority.
One bill (H.4584) would give state lawmakers an $18,000 annual raise. According to a 2010 study conducted by The Nerve, House and Senate members make on average about $32,000 a year for their part-time service when combining their salary, reimbursements and expense payments. Of course, that doesn’t include the other perks of legislative office like regular free food and drinks from special interest groups during session, or pension benefits for qualifying lawmakers.
Another bill (H.4529) would give lawmakers more control over state agency director pay, requiring each raise recommended by the Agency Head Salary Commission to be approved by a majority of House and Senate members. The commission is already mostly controlled by lawmakers, with the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance chairmen together appointing eight of its 11 members.
H.4501 would further complicate how counties must spend their local road funds. Under current law, counties receive a slice of gas tax revenue to be used on local road projects called “C funds” – though at least 25% of those funds must spent on the state highway system. This bill would require that 15% of C funds be used on state-controlled rural roads that were formerly maintained by a county.
It is unclear whether the 15% would be in addition to the current 25% requirement (for a total of 40%), or if counties could merely shift some of their current state road funding to meet the requirement. Either way, this is a step in the wrong direction; counties need more local autonomy and less state meddling.
Finally, several prefiled resolutions would rename roads after different community members and public officials, including a sitting judge. These were included in the spending category because the funds to cover renaming expenses come out of C funds (mentioned above), capped at $500 for each proposal.
COVID / HEALTHCARE
While several House bills were prefiled dealing with Covid policy, two pieces of legislation addressing vaccine mandates have already passed at least one chamber (one bill passed the House just last week). To keep things current, those two proposals will be discussed here.
S.177, which passed the Senate in April, states that no person in South Carolina can be forced to get a Covid vaccine. In general, businesses would be prohibited from firing workers who refused to get vaccinated – though employees treating or caring for “vulnerable persons”, defined as those over the age of 60 or who have an underlying medical condition, could still face a vaccine requirement from their employer.
During the special legislative session held earlier this month, an effort was made among several lawmakers to have the resolution be considered, but that was shut down using a last-minute rule change.
The following week, House lawmakers returned and passed a separate, notably weaker vaccine-related proposal, H.3126. Instead of banning private employers from imposing a vaccine mandate, it would ensure that workers who are terminated for refusing a Covid vaccine are eligible for state unemployment benefits. Under the bill, only state workers, independent contractors, non-employee vendors, and students would be protected against vaccine mandates by a state government employer, college or school district (first responders would also be covered here).
At this point, it is unclear which policy lawmakers will ultimately settle on when they return for session next year.
Meanwhile, two bills would support flexible healthcare policy. H.4549 would allow licensed hospitals to provide at-home care similar to services provided on-site. At-home services would be exempt from state Certificate of Need (CON) requirements, which require healthcare providers to get approval before building or adding certain facilities/programs. Similarly, H.4546 would exempt licensed home health agencies from state CON laws.
This section looks at bills concerning South Carolinians’ rights, specifically those related to the First and Second Amendment.
H.4612 would put strict limitations on behavior at funeral services, banning “loud [or] obscene” language and “singing, chanting [or] whistling” within 500 feet of the ceremonial site, funeral home, or the family’s processional route if it would “tend” to disrupt the service. Holding up signs that convey “fighting words” would also be prohibited. These restrictions would be enforced not just during the service, but in the two hours before and after it takes place. A first-time violation would carry up to 90 days in jail.
State law regulating funeral service conduct is more than sufficient; this bill would set a dangerous precedent for protected speech.
H.4528 is a heavy-handed approach to curbing social media censorship. Individuals could sue social media platforms if they could prove a site deleted or censored certain speech, or by showing that the operating algorithm somehow blocked their content. The most extreme policy under the bill would allow the SC Secretary of State to fine companies $10,000 dollars per day if they deplatform or shadowban political candidates, or $100,000 if a candidate is seeking statewide office.
One of the most alarming prefiled bills, H.4616, would require that all guns manufactured in the state be equipped with an electronic chip that identifies its owner.
Putting aside the bill’s anti-Second Amendment implications, the policy would be a disaster on a practical level. It isn’t clear if this law would apply only to guns of the future, or if every gun previously manufactured in South Carolina must be retrofitted with this device. The financial burden on manufacturers (and thus consumers) would be substantial either way. Worse, if the chip technology were to malfunction in a self-defense situation, the consequences could be life-threatening.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE / LAW ENFORCEMENT
Bills in this category would make changes to policing as well as the state’s policy on certain illicit drugs. Compared with other groups, some bills here, at least in concept, appear to be headed in the right direction.
H.4542 would “ban” state and local law enforcement from owning certain military-style guns and equipment like weaponized drones, grenades, bayonets, .50 caliber and higher firearms, and weaponized armored vehicles. Seems like a good idea, right?
Here’s where the bill falls apart: an agency that already owns these items could keep them if they get approval from the SC Law Enforcement Division (SLED). Worse, it appears SLED would be signing its own exemption forms. If this bill were to start gaining traction, nothing would stop law enforcement agencies from loading up on military equipment before the rule change took place.
Two bills would limit the reasons police officers can conduct stops and searches. The first bill (H.4594) states that minor infractions like driving with a missing brake light or improper placement of a license plate cannot on their own be used to make a stop. Another bill (H.4610) would prohibit an officer from stopping a pedestrian or driver solely based on the scent of marijuana, nor could that reason be given on its own to justify a search.
There is certainly merit to the idea of reducing traffic stops for minor violations, especially given the racial disparities found in recent stop and search data. Letting an officer claim that he or she smells marijuana to justify a search is a scenario particularly prone to abuse, as there is no proof necessary for such an accusation.
Another drug-related bill (H.4583) would remove trafficking of cocaine and methamphetamine from the statutory violent crimes list, a wise proposal considering neither offense necessarily involves violence. H.4586, meanwhile, would allow a person to expunge a nonviolent offense from their criminal record 10 years after the completion of their sentence.
Two bills, if passed, would have serious ramifications for education policy (and beyond) in South Carolina.
H.4577 makes two changes that would reshape schooling as we know it. First, it would merge the Education Oversight Committee (a K-12 agency) and the Commission on Higher Education into a single, hybrid entity called the Commission for Comprehensive Education. The General Assembly (which has considerable control over EOC and CHE membership) would elect seven of nine members to the new commission.
Second, the bill would put the commission in charge of a new educational system to track preschoolers all the way through adulthood and into the workforce, dubbed “P-20”. Program goals include helping “all students” obtain college degrees, improving the pipeline between Pre-K and higher education, and aligning college programs with state-determined workforce needs.
This bill is a reminder of the dangers behind South Carolina’s workforce-dominated education philosophy. Inevitably, students and schools become seen as resources for the state’s labor and economic machine, guided from the top by lawmakers and other economic planners like the Coordinating Council for Workforce Development.
The emphasis on higher education also deserves attention. With the rising cost of tuition, and the value of four-year degrees diminishing, which side stands to gain more from this deal, students or colleges? Regardless, students should be free to make this decision without the state funneling them in one direction from the time they enter grade school.
Another bill shows the importance of restraint when addressing concerns about education curriculum. H.4605 would ban a long, ill-defined list of subject matter from being promoted by “state-funded entities”, which include:
- Public and private schools;
- Colleges and universities;
- State and local governments;
- Any business getting state funds;
- Non-profit organizations; and
- Contractors, subcontractors, and vendors performing state contracts
While some material deemed off-limits by the bill may sound like the teachings of critical race theory (that race is a social construct, race is a tool for oppression, etc.), other banned speech would include classroom instruction that simply “omits relevant context” or “interjects the instructor’s personal views” – phrases open to considerable interpretation.
Worse, the bill would set up a hotline so that anyone could file a complaint. The state Attorney General would be required to investigate all of them – no matter how baseless or incomplete. An entity found to be in violation (determined solely by the Attorney General) would lose their state funding or tax-exempt status until they demonstrate compliance. While there may be legitimate concerns about content in the classroom, this bill would do more harm than good.
- H.4569 would impose a $5,000 daily penalty on livestock owners who fail to keep their animals properly confined if they live next to a childcare facility. The bill would not grandfather in property owners who have already been living under these circumstances.
- H.4512 would lower the age to purchase alcohol (beer, wine and liquor) to 18.
- H.4557 would add the State Fire Marshal as a member to the Coordinating Council for Economic Development. The council is comprised of 11 state agency heads and exists primarily to award taxpayer-funded grants for select companies. A more fair playing field for businesses in South Carolina would see the council eliminated, not expanded.
- H.4580 would require metal detectors to be installed at public entrances to every public K-12 school, including athletic venues. This is an extreme and unnecessary proposal that lacks justification and fails to consider the logistical nightmare it would cause.
- H.4544 would require jury trials in divorce and child custody cases.
As 2021 was the first year in South Carolina’s two-year legislative cycle, bills that did not pass this year could still become law in 2022 (read more about these bills here). The General Assembly will convene for next year’s legislative session on Tuesday, January 11.