Sean Rayford file photo

This story was originally published by Statehouse Report.

Time is running out for lawmakers who are trying to get pet issues finished before the regular legislative session ends in three weeks. 

And with the state Senate next week debating its plan to spend $11.4 billion in state revenues — an all-time high — time will be more precious for those pushing legalization of medical marijuana, an open carry gun law and punishment for hate crimes.

Much of the focus will be in the state Senate, where debates are often longer and more drawn out in the House. It continues to work on election reform and other issues, but those aren’t expected to come up until next year due to procedural rules.

“The House, under Speaker Jay Lucas, has managed its calendar exceptionally well and has set a high standard for others to attempt to emulate,” observed Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia.

Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, added, “We’re about done with the major legislation and just (need to) clean up bills and Senate bills that made the crossover deadline.”

A look at the legislative schedule

Senators will begin debate on the state’s 2021-22 budget on Tuesday. Expectations are for discussions to take a week. If they take longer, there will be less time on the floor for other issues.

The regular legislative session is expected to end May 13, but lawmakers will likely return to Columbia for two special sessions: 

In June, they’ll likely make a final vote on the budget in mid-June to finish compromises hammered out by a conference committee that will be appointed before May 13. While the “sine die” session will be limited in scope and usually lasts only a couple of days, they’ll have until June 30 to finish to ensure the state has a budget by July 1, the first day of its new fiscal year.

Then in the fall, legislators will come back to deal with at least three big ticket items: 

  • How to spend more than $500 million in settlement funds received from the federal government for the Savannah River Site;
  • What to do with about $2 billion in South Carolina’s share of recovery funds from a recent federal stimulus package; and 
  • Legislative reapportionment. Generally every 10 years, lawmakers receive new census figures in the spring of years ending in 1, but this year due to delays, new numbers aren’t expected to be available until the end of September, delaying redistricting.

Millions more available to the Senate

The House budget plan passed in March included $9.6 billion in revenue from state taxes as well as $897 million in non-recurring revenues left over from past surpluses and unspent reserves not used last year because of the pandemic. New recurring revenues were projected to be about $189 million, based on February estimates from the state Board of Economic Advisors (BEA).

But earlier this month, the BEA modified its revenue forecast to add about $300 million to its revenue forecast, plus another $500+ million to what’s socked away in non-recurring revenues. The result: A 2021-22 spending plan worth $11.4 billion of state funds. Combined with projected federal spending in the state of $9.5 billion and $11.6 billion from “other funds,” which includes money for roads and college tuition, an estimated $31.8 billion in government funding is expected to flow through the Palmetto State in the coming fiscal year.

Other bills in the hopper

Here is a look at some major bills still in limbo as lawmakers race to the session’s regular finish line:

Medical marijuana. State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, says a conservative bill to allow medical use of marijuana to relieve pain and suffering is mired in an objection filed by Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Myrtle Beach. If the objection isn’t withdrawn, the measure may be forced into the next session.

Hate crimes. A bill to add prison time and fines for people who commit hate crimes was approved this week by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, but some think the measure may not have enough time to get through the full committee and full Senate. “Members are disputing the protected classes and are looking for reasons to object to the bill,” said state Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia. South Carolina is one of just three states without hate crimes protections.

Open carry. While the House passed two bills to allow handgun owners to openly display pistols, the measures are caught in the Senate. It’s unclear whether senators will address the contentious issue this year.

Santee Cooper. The Senate this week approved a much different plan from the House on the future of Santee Cooper, a state utility. Senators voted 44-1 to reform, not sell, the state utility. Not in the Senate bill was a House proposal to create a panel to consider offers to sell all or part of Santee Cooper. 

Family leave. A House version providing 12 weeks of paid leave for state employees on the birth or adoption of a child went to the Senate before the crossover deadline and may have enough support to get through the upper chamber before May 13, Bernstein said.