Legislative priorities drag state back not forward

By Mike Roosevelt

As the 2021 legislative session began in January, Republicans in the South Carolina statehouse faced a dilemma: Should they use their large majorities in both the Senate (30-16) and House (81-43) to pass unpopular bills that return the state to the late 19th century, or go all-in and drag the rest of us back to the Dark Ages?

While legislators enacted bills restoring regular step increases in teachers’ pay that was deferred during the pandemic year, and addressing COVID vaccinations, they also filed a number of regressive bills that met the April 10 “crossover” deadline, enabling them to move from one chamber to the other for consideration. As the session ended on May 13, legislators had to decide which pending bills would remain in play, giving voters an opportunity to weigh in on them. (The accompanying chart highlights several prominent bills and their main features.)

Wish list bills in search of problems. The state GOP set the tone early for its legislative priorities this year, ignoring the economic and public health crises caused by the pandemic to focus instead on “Fetal Heartbeat” and “Open Carry” bills that placed greater restrictions on a woman’s right to an abortion and flouted common-sense gun requirements, respectively. Then they moved on to finding new and improved ways to:

  • Suppress votes with a bill that, according to the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN), “provides for but restricts in-person no-excuse early voting as well as greatly reduces the existing excused-absentee voting criteria for mail-in or hand delivery” and “… diminishes access for some voters.” Democrats sponsored a competing bill that would encourage greater voter participation.
  • Discriminate against transgender girls with legislation that would prohibit them from participating in girls’ middle school and high school sports. The Save Women’s Sports Act, according to The State, “den[ies these children] access to activities that are beneficial to their development,” and WREN declared that it would “harm transgender youth, send a disturbingly clear message that South Carolina prioritizes discrimination over inclusion, and open the state to potential lawsuits.”
  • Teach a sanitized version of US History with a bill that is, according to The State, “a response to national efforts… to remove statues and monuments to historical figures who supported slavery or white supremacy.”
  • Execute felons either by the electric chair or firing squad with a bill addressing the shortage of the chemicals needed for lethal injections at a time when the New York Times reports that public support is receding for the death penalty. Why stop there? Burning at the stake would save precious ammunition, while drawing a quartering would minimize the state’s carbon footprint!
This chart was updated May 13 at 6:30 p.m.

Actual Problems with Deferred Solutions. As Republicans fed red meat to their base, they relegated more progressive legislation focused on women, children, and minorities to the back burner.

  • A House bill providing 12 weeks of paid leave to state employees after the birth or adoption of a child crossed over from the House to the Senate in early April but has been in the Senate Finance Committee ever since. The State reported that WREN describes this legislation as “critical to secure working families’ economic security, improving gender equity in the workplace and improving recruitment and retention of our state employees.”
  • A Senate bill permitting pharmacists to provide contraceptives to women without a doctor’s prescription missed the crossover deadline and has been in a House committee since late April. In Senate testimony, WREN spoke in support of the bill, noting that barriers to consistent and effective contraceptive usage are particularly high for women who do not have a regular health care provider or health insurance, lack reliable access to transportation, and have difficulty planning multiple visits to doctors’ offices and pharmacies. Women living in rural areas and with lower incomes in particular face greater barriers to access and consistent usage.
  • Legislation raising the minimum marriage age from 16 to 18 has moved slowly through the Senate, receiving a favorable report from the Judiciary Committee on May 5. The bill’s primary sponsor recently told The State that “Of the 5,400 children who got married in South Carolina between 2000 and 2018, 79 percent were girls marrying adult men.” In testimony to a Senate subcommittee, WREN CEO Ann Warner pointed out that “16 or 17 year old girls are among the most vulnerable people in our society to intimate partner violence. … These risks are especially high in South Carolina, which has chronically high levels of intimate partner violence.”  
  • A House bill that prohibits “lunch shaming” – providing students with outstanding lunch debts different, lesser meals and denying them access to class field trips, graduation ceremonies, and other activities passed unanimously and crossed over to the Senate before the deadline but has been in committee since early April.

Sine Die: Latin for “It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings.” Yes, our General Assembly is complicated, arcane, and pretty much indecipherable to the average citizen. So what’s one more layer of complexity? Enter sine die, which is legalese for adjourning proceedings indefinitely, allowing legislators to designate in a resolution the issues that may be discussed between now and the 2022 session that begins in January. Any bill not included in the sine die resolution may not be addressed until the new session.

The bad news is that some good bills will be delayed another year. The good news is that the delay will give voters time to study the issues that are important to them and reach out to their senators and representatives. While most observers expect discussion between sessions to focus mostly on routine budget issues, WREN’s staff expects the very important issue of redistricting to take place after September.

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