Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mixed bag

Mixed review so far for this year’s legislature

SC Statehouse Report

Call us cynical, but there’s little to be impressed with this year for results from the General Assembly. 

Most of the first half of the session seemed to be rife with politicians trying to make headlines on solutions for problems while they actually were working to do very little.  Why?  Because they were waiting for the end of primary filing to see if anyone would run against them.  Now as the session winds toward an end in early June, it looks like all of the backbone in those lofty headlines is bending left and right.

So far this year, the General Assembly has dealt with a major cash shortfall as it crafted the state’s $7 billion budget.  The Senate version, which passed this week, included an across-the-board cut for most agencies and a small 1 percent raise for state employees in an effort to deal with $90 million less than expected.  Legislators also passed a tougher DUI reform bill, signed over the past week by Gov. Mark Sanford, that should make the streets safer. 

But so far, that’s about it.  Here’s an outlook for other major proposals:

Immigration reform.  GOP lawmakers say the biggest wail and cry they hear from taxpayers is about illegal immigration.  (Interestingly, polls show Democrats are concerned more with education, the Iraq War and the economy).  While lawmakers pushed various proposals to make tougher immigration rules, they’ve stalled in a House-Senate committee working on a compromise.  At issue is how to make rules good but not too onerous to require private employers to check a worker’s legal status.  Outlook:  Enough folks are running for re-election that something will be passed that politicians will claim a victory on so they can look good in campaign ads.

Payday lending.  Word on the street is that a proposal for tougher rules on high-interest predatory lending is getting watered down.  While South Carolina lawmakers obviously aren’t going the extra step to get rid of payday lending, they shouldn’t kowtow to the industry.  They should enact consumer protections to ensure people who need short-term loans can get them without being victimized.  Outlook:  Unless the lobbyists get their way, a middle-of-the-road compromise will be worked out that will allow the industry to survive.

Ultrasound.  Lawmakers passed one of the dumbest things we’ve heard of in a long time - - a measure to require a woman interested in getting an abortion to be informed that an ultrasound was being performed and that she would have to decide whether she wanted to see it.  Proponents say the measure strengthens the state’s informed consent law; opponents say at least it falls short of requiring patients to view an ultrasound.  In actuality, ultrasounds are performed in South Carolina anyway.  This measure is nothing but election-year politics to give conservatives a way to bolster their right-to-life credentials.  Note to the GOP:  Whatever happened to getting the government OUT of people’s lives? 

Cigarette tax.  This year was supposed to be the best possible time to raise the state’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax.  But with a balanced budget now passed by the Senate and with the Senate’s end-of-the-year agenda crowded with a lot of legislation, there’s not much time for debate, which means raising the tax might just face death … again.

Sprinkler bill.  Following the deaths of nine firefighters in a sofa warehouse fire last year, several proposals emerged for requiring commercial buildings to have fire sprinklers to improve safety.  The whole thing started out like gangbusters early in the year; now, even proponents are complaining that the bill is too weak.  Outlook:  Uncertain.

Other proposals that may see the light of day or may get stuffed back in the closet this year include raising more money for highway funding, caps on state spending and criminal code reform.  But with elections for the House and Senate on tap this year, the great likelihood is for more inaction than action.  That may bode well in some ways, but it certainly doesn’t help people get a better education, better jobs and better health care.

Andy Brack, publisher of S.C. Statehouse Report, can be reached at:

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