What South Carolina’s General Assembly got done this legislative session

Now, after six months in Columbia, South Carolina’s legislature has wrapped up most, if not all, of its work for the year.
Published: Jun. 16, 2023 at 7:57 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2023 at 8:47 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Bills to restrict abortion, toughen up bond laws, and to guarantee teachers get paid time off when they have a baby have all reached Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk this year.

Now, after six months in Columbia, South Carolina’s legislature has wrapped up most, if not all, of its work for the year.

The legislature has not totally closed the door on returning later in 2023, depending on what the governor vetoes in the budget.

But leaders in the Republican-dominated General Assembly say they hope to not have to be back in session until next January, when they could take up those vetoes.

While the legislative session runs from January to May, lawmakers have been in Columbia for much of their off-session the last few years, responding to the pandemic, taking up redistricting, and holding a special session last fall following the US Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade.

“We don’t need to be here in the summer and in the fall unless something really bad happens, unless there’s something extraordinary that pops up. This year proved we can get our work done if we make that the goal and we actually work toward that,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said.

This was the first year of a two-year session, so any bill that has not become law yet can be picked up where it is in the legislative process next year.

As of Friday, McMaster had signed 84 bills into law, with another 14 awaiting his signature.

“We accomplished a lot more than I ever thought we would,” Speaker of the House Murrell Smith, R – Sumter, said of his first year as Speaker.

Last month, McMaster signed a new ban on most abortions after around six weeks into a pregnancy after the state Supreme Court struck down a previous six-week ban in January, shortly before the General Assembly returned to Columbia.

A judge has blocked the enforcement of that new ban for now, with the Supreme Court to hear arguments in a challenge to it later this month.

The legislature also passed new laws to repeal South Carolina’s certificate of need law, making it easier for hospitals and clinics to build and expand without getting the state’s approval first, and to split DHEC into two new state agencies, one over public health and the other over environmental services.

Lawmakers finalized two of their top public safety priorities: to reform South Carolina’s bond policies and to criminalize fentanyl trafficking.

The governor also signed a new law that hides from public disclosure the identities of drug manufacturers and pharmacies if they provide the South Carolina Department of Corrections with the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections.

In education, the General Assembly enacted South Carolina’s first school voucher program to give certain families public dollars through Education Scholarship Accounts to send their children to private schools or public schools outside their zoned district.

Another new law guarantees up to six weeks of paid leave for public school employees when they welcome a new child to their family via birth, fostering, or adoption.

Lawmakers also finalized the incentives package for Scout Motors to build an electric vehicle plant in Richland County, to provide financial support for kinship caregivers, and to prohibit local bans on tobacco sales while cracking down on those sales to minors.

“We addressed a lot of issues this year,” Massey said. “We addressed some controversial issues; we addressed some non-controversial issues. But we tackled the main issues that we wanted to address this year, and I’m proud of that.”

Other bills have progressed but have not gotten to the finish line yet.

Lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement on a bill that has passed both the House and the Senate, but in different forms, to restrict what can be taught and discussed in South Carolina schools. The six-legislator committee tasked with negotiating the compromise has yet to set a date for when it will meet to hash out those details.

Awaiting a debate in the Senate are bills to enact a hate crimes law in South Carolina and to allow people to carry loaded, concealed guns without a permit or training, both of which have passed the House.

“We had a vote on that two years ago. It failed. It would probably be a little bit different today, but I don’t know that it is significantly different today, based on what I’m hearing from people,” Massey, who opposes eliminating requirements for training and background checks to own guns, said about the permitless carry bill.

A push to legalize medical marijuana could also be debated next year in the Senate, where it failed to get enough votes this year to get a debate.

House members have control over a Senate-passed bill to ban citizens of US State Department-designated foreign adversaries, including China and Russia, from owning property in South Carolina. That legislation currently sits in a House committee, a few steps away from reaching the floor for a debate.

A major priority of Gov. Henry McMaster, to impose tighter penalties on people who illegally possess guns, fell short this year, to the governor’s disappointment.

“Because we did not send that loud, clear voice to the criminals of the penalties that they’re going to suffer if they keep doing it, because we failed in this opportunity — the General Assembly failed in this opportunity — we’re going to have more problems,” McMaster told reporters Thursday. “There will be more tragedies.”

After the General Assembly finished its regular legislative session in mid-May, McMaster called lawmakers back for a special session, tasking them with working out four issues: finalizing the budget, passing an abortion ban, getting the bond reform bill to his desk, and toughening up illegal gun penalties.

Legislators accomplished three of those goals, and McMaster had told reporters he would contemplate calling them back to Columbia if they failed to get the gun penalties to him.

Leaders in both chambers say they expect to try to get it done again next year.

“We agree wholeheartedly with the governor: We have to address the issue about felons carrying guns and continuing to be the ones who are committing the crimes with weapons when they’re not legally allowed to possess those weapons,” Smith said.

“I wish we could’ve taken that up,” Massey added. “Frankly, we didn’t have the votes to take that up. That’s kind of where we are, and I’ve had that conversation with the governor, and I know he’s been making some phone calls and hopefully if we can get some additional help in that area that we can get to a resolution.”

Also awaiting the governor’s signature is the state’s nearly $14 billion budget, which includes a cut to South Carolina’s top income tax bracket, raises for state workers and state law enforcement, and an increase to minimum salaries for public school teachers, though how much of a raise educators will get will vary by district.