Judicial selections bill passes unanimously! (special session recap)

Judicial selections bill passes unanimously! (special session recap)

On Wednesday, S.C. lawmakers met in Columbia for what is likely the last day of the 2024 legislative session, sending the new state budget, a bill enhancing the judicial selection process, and other items passed out of conference committee to the governor’s desk.

At least two bills of significance, including a contentious healthcare restructuring measure that would have required amending sine die for it to be considered, did not make it out of the chambers for passage. The other bill sought to provide more educational transparency and keep parents informed about their children’s school and curriculum.


Enhancing the judicial selection process

The House and Senate unanimously passed a bill (S.1046) that makes substantive improvements to our judicial selection process, which at present lacks transparency, accountability, and input from the executive branch. Much of this has stemmed from the structure of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC), the body charged with vetting and nominating judicial candidates. Its 10 members have been appointed by three senior legislative positions since it was formed in 1996. 

But that will change under S.1046, among other laws and policies. Here are a few highlights:

  • Giving the governor four appointments to the JMSC, while increasing its membership to 12
  • Limiting JMSC members to serving no more than two consecutive two-year terms
  • Cycling out members under a new rule that prohibits those serving on JMSC for more than four years from being re-appointed (excluding the chairman and vice chairman)
  • Raising the cap on qualified judicial nominees to six per open seat (currently three), fostering more competition in races
  • Creating a review process for judges at the midpoint of their terms
  • Requiring the JMSC to livestream its hearings to the public
  • Ending the practice of allowing candidates who face no opposition to bypass the public hearing process
  • Providing more time for the General Assembly to review the list of qualified candidates before those candidates can start seeking vote pledges

We are pleased to share that several changes, including gubernatorial appointments to the JMSC, raising the cap on qualified nominees, and providing transparency through livestreaming, take after SCPC’s reform recommendations. Many of them are also supported by a strong contingent of our readers, according to our April issues survey.

As we shared in a statement on X, this should not mark the end of reform efforts, but the beginning. Lawmakers should maintain this momentum in 2025 and take further action to improve judicial selections and public trust. A key area still in need of reform is magistrate selections, an issue not addressed in S.1046.


New budget speeds up tax relief

A new state budget (FY2024-25) is set to take effect July 1 after receiving final approval by lawmakers. The highlight of the budget bill relates not to spending but to tax relief, as it will double the size of this year’s planned income cut. It uses roughly $200 million in available surplus to lower the top income tax rate from 6.4% to 6.2%, ensuring taxpayers will keep more of their own money each paycheck. The larger cut also means that South Carolina will hit its target rate of 6.0% at least one year ahead of schedule (part of a 2022 cut law supported by SCPC).

Accelerating tax relief was a top legislative priority for the Policy Council in 2024, an initiative highlighted in this year’s Roadmap to Reform.

The budget also makes investments in critical areas such as education and infrastructure. Base teacher pay will jump from $42,500 to $47,000, an increase of more than 10%, and veteran educators will now see annual raises for at least 28 years, up from 23. Additionally, hundreds of millions of dollars are allocated for road and bridge projects.  

We should note, however, that much of the road and bridge funding comes from a sales tax surplus that legally belongs to property taxpayers. As covered in our May budget report, the funds are connected to a tax-swap measure (Act 388) that exempted owner-occupied homes from paying school operating costs on property tax bills in exchange for a statewide 1% sales tax hike. Revenue from the extra penny goes into the Homestead Exemption Fund to reimburse school districts, which has been accumulating a surplus since 2020 that now sits at $600 million. In the event of a surplus, the law says, such funds must be used for property tax credits on owner-occupied homes.

To bypass this requirement, the budget includes a proviso (117.149) suspending the relevant section of law.

In addition to paying for road and bridge projects, part of this surplus ($100 million) is used to accelerate the income tax cut mentioned above. While these are commendable investments, they ideally should be funded through proper sources.


Other bills that passed

The following passed out of conference committee and received a final passing vote on Wednesday:

  • Eligibility for tax incentives (H.4087) – This legislation revises the eligibility criteria for certain tax credits, which includes the counting of remote workers. It permits taxpayers or business entities that are establishing or expanding a headquarters facility within the state to receive a tax credit against liabilities incurred under Section 12-6-510, which pertains to tax rates for individuals, estates and trusts.

  • Higher education permanent improvement projects (S.314) – This legislation streamlines the process for state universities to submit proposals for permanent improvement projects.

  • Childcare and caregiver requirements (S.862) – This legislation specifies the requirements for caregivers beginning employment in licensed or approved childcare centers in South Carolina. It also details the process for licensing and approving these childcare centers.

  • Income tax conforming changes (S.577) – This legislation updates references in the tax code to be changed to the current highest income tax percentage (necessary for conformance with recent income tax cuts).


Did not pass or were not considered

Although it received much early attention, lawmakers opted not to try and resurrect the healthcare restructuring bill (S.915) that died on the final day of regular session. The bill would have consolidated six separate health departments under a new executive office, among other changes (read our analysis here). Taking up the bill would have required amending sine die, which has not occurred since 2017.

Another bill (H.3728), which promised more transparency for parents in their children’s education, sadly failed to cross the finish line. It would have directed school districts to list approved textbooks on their websites, provided detailed syllabuses for K-12 courses, and let parents file complaints against the teaching of harmful concepts as defined in the bill, among other changes. The bill died after the conference committee assigned to it was unable to secure free conference powers and make finalizing changes.