Education funding overhauls! Obamacare resistance! Constitutional conundrums!
Here’s a preview of what’s to come in the 2013-2014 session of Statehouse Smackdown Live. The legislative session begins today.
Three months after weak security at the Department of Revenue allowed a hacker to steal 4 million unencrypted tax returns and a boatload of Social Security numbers, South Carolinians are still fuming — and lawmakers know it. At a legislative workshop last week hosted by the S.C. Press Association, leaders from both parties rolled out agendas for the year that included cybersecurity reform. There is, of course, some debate over how to fix the problem.
Sen. Kevin Bryant (R-Anderson), co-chairman of the Senate subcommittee looking into the epic security fail, called for employees to be issued keyfobs that give them a new temporary password every time they need to access DOR data. He also favored encryption — a fairly basic security measure — and partitioning, wherein individual employees can only view certain parts of the data. He said legislators are also looking into extending the Experian credit monitoring for taxpayers that the state purchased at a cost of $12 million last year. The price tag for a second year of protection would be $10 million.
But Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) said she worried the state was having a knee-jerk reaction to the hack. She questioned whether the state wasn’t giving Experian “a sweetheart deal” when cheaper, pre-existing remedies might be available. She also said it was worth considering whether the state’s Joint Strategic Technology Committee, made up of technology experts from the legislature and the general public, should be held responsible for maintaining state agencies’ online security.
Rep. Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville) offered a more prosaic solution: Train state employees in how to be cautious online so that another employee doesn’t “click on something silly.” According to investigations of the hacking incident, a Department of Revenue employee clicked a malware link in an e-mail, allowing a hacker to steal usernames and passwords from the computer system.
Mo’ Medicaid, Mo’ Problems
On Jan. 1, 2014, President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will expand Medicaid benefits to include citizens under age 65 who make less than 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level — that is, less than about $15,000 per year. Predictably, state Republicans are experiencing some heartburn over this.
One of seven priorities on the House Republican Caucus agenda is “Oppose Obamacare.” At the extreme end of the spectrum, Rep. Bill Chumley (R-Spartanburg) and eight co-sponsors have pre-filed a nullification bill that would levy up to a $1,000 fine or a two-year prison sentence against state employees who comply with Obamacare. Alternately, the GOP could vote to refuse to accept the new Medicaid money, as former Gov. Mark Sanford did with $700 million worth of federal stimulus money in 2009.
Taking the defensive, Rep. Harry Ott (D-Calhoun) warned that refusing the money could lead to closures of many rural hospitals. “Simply to say, ‘We don’t want to get South Carolinians’ tax money back from the federal government because I don’t like the federal government,’ in my opinion is taking an irresponsible position,” Ott said.
Sen. Bryant dropped the first S-bomb of the year during a comment session on public education.
“I think what I’m hearing from my socialist friends on this panel is the legislature knows the educational needs of the entire state,” the Republican senator said, referring to recommendations made by Democrats Cobb-Hunter and Ott.
Rep. Ott, who stepped down as the minority leader Tuesday, said the state should focus on getting children into four-year-old kindergarten and equalizing funding so that schools in low-income areas do not continue to lag behind schools in pockets of wealth.
Rep. Cobb-Hunter called for lawmakers to revisit Act 388, a 2006 law that exempted homeowners from paying the portion of property taxes that goes to fund school operations. A concurrent sales tax increase to six cents on the dollar was intended to make up for the loss of school funding from property taxes, but it didn’t. During the Great Recession, sales tax money has consistently failed to cover that shortfall, causing budget headaches in the Statehouse year after year.
Expect some backlash against the Charleston area, which some legislators say has received an undue share of transportation funding for big-money infrastructure projects like the Crosstown drainage fix (funded partly by an $88 million loan from the State Infrastructure Bank) and the proposed I-526 extension (with $558 million pledged by the SIB).
Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee) said infrastructure projects elsewhere in the state are being neglected as a result, including the widening and repair of Interstate 85. “The formula we’ve been dealing with when it comes to infrastructure is 864 and 803 make it, and 843 spends it,” Peeler said, referring to area codes for the Upstate, Midlands, and Lowcountry, respectively. “That formula’s got to change.”
House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) disputed that claim. “That’s not true at all,” Harrell said. “The money from the gas tax is spread all over the state by formula to the transportation committees.”
A New Constitution?
One other big idea from the legislative workshop: Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw), who ran a close gubernatorial race against Nikki Haley in 2010, wants lawmakers to rewrite the state constitution.
The current constitution was adopted in 1895 under the leadership of then-Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who sought to disenfranchise blacks through measures like poll taxes and literacy tests. A section of the constitution banning interracial marriages wasn’t taken off of the books until 1999.
A new constitution could also address low education standards in South Carolina. Infamously, a 1999 state Supreme Court ruling held that the state must provide “minimally adequate” public education. So far, 211,000 people have signed a petition (available at goodbyeminimallyadequate.com) to add a clause to the state constitution calling for “a high quality education, allowing every student to reach their highest potential.”
“We shouldn’t be afraid to reform our government in a serious way,” Sheheen said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to turn over power to the people, which is what a constitutional convention really does. It’s gotten so bad in South Carolina state government that it’s gotten to that point.”