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Lexington Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy said Gov. Henry McMaster is staying in touch with her and many of her Statehouse colleagues during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve talked to him several times. He will just call and say, ‘What are you hearing?'” Shealy said.

The 170 members of the S.C. House and Senate are home until at least the week of April 7 as infections accelerate across the state. State-level response to the coronavirus pandemic rests in the executive office under a declared state of emergency.

With the legislature on hold, one of the “checks” on the executive branch is unable to weigh in via legislation as executive orders are announced nearly bi-weekly, worrying some social justice advocates.

McMaster’s spokesman Brian Symmes and Chief of Staff Trey Walker did not respond to several requests to comment for this story.

“It’s really actually not safe for the House and Senate to meet right now,” Lancaster Democratic Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell said. “I have been so against legislating by executive order, but in this situation, we really, really need to.”

Beaufort Republican Sen. Tom Davis said the General Assembly’s role is “to be responsive to what the governor requests.” He called it “the appropriate response” to let the executive office call the shots during the crisis.

“You always have as a backstop the General Assembly and that is the ultimate guardrail,” he said. “We have a system that is designed to have those checks.”

Questions of executive power

But as executive orders mount, some civil liberties’ advocates have raised an alarm, particularly in light of the legislature not meeting.

McMaster’s March 23 executive order banning groups of three or more is flawed and threatens civil rights due to giving police discretion in enforcement, according to Frank Knaack , director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. The group has called on the governor to rescind the order.

S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center Director Sue Berkowitz said overarching executive orders “can be pretty dicey,” especially since it is unsure when the legislature will reconvene. However, she said courts are still functioning in the state, so a case challenging an executive order? could always be filed.

“These are such extraordinary times. There clearly needs to be a balance of public health but without it totally infringing on civil liberties of people,” Berkowitz said.

Orangeburg Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto said South Carolina’s executive branch is the appropriate place to handle the unfolding coronavirus crisis but, “I disagree it is like a hurricane.”

“We need to revisit how we are managing this,” Hutto said. “It isn’t just going to (go on ) for three days and gone … It’s multifaceted. So I think the governor should task a czar or somebody who’s got a more comprehensive background in all of state government to manage us through the pandemic. He can’t micromanage all of this himself.”

What lawmakers want

Norrell said she was concerned about Lancaster Motor Speedway’s annual event March 21, and she called the governor to see about further restrictions on gatherings. She said she was pleased when the race canceled and the governor banned groups of three or more March 23.

She said she would like to see him “go further” in addressing the pandemic, such as allowing online notarization for legal services.

Two Pickens County Republicans, state Reps. Neal Collins and Gary Clary, urged McMaster to issue a statewide “stay-at-home” order to eliminate non-essential travel and business. Spartanburg Democratic Rep. Rosalyn Henderson-Myers called on McMaster to take executive action to stop medical providers from bill collections for 60 days. Hopkins Democratic Rep. Wendy Brawley is urging McMaster to waive penalties on vehicle taxes.

Legislature stays focused on budget

Charleston Republican Sen. Paul Campbell said his chamber is mostly focused on passing a budget after the disease ravages the state’s citizens and economy.

“We’ve got to get through it and find out what the bottom is,” he said, adding that will take many more detailed committee meetings to “completely re-do” the budget.

The 2020-2021 budget won’t be the $10 billion spending plan the House passed in the beginning of March. An April 9 meeting for revenue forecasters is expected to provide a budget stress test on what could happen for annual spending.

The legislature needs to be working on a budget, Hutto said.

Shealy said that while she’s unsure when the legislature will reconvene, “we’re going to eventually have to do something.”

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