The typically conservative S.C. General Assembly will be conservative with the coronavirus pandemic when the 2021 session opens, particularly after at least two members apparently contracted the disease in end-of-the-year organizational meetings.
The virus will control the tempo of the legislature, said Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.
“COVID-19 will be the boss,” he said. “The state Senate is not a bunch of scaredy-cats, but we are going to continue to act responsibly, so that will be on everyone’s mind — this virus and how it affects the state.
“The whole COVID situation has an Alamo feeling to it, meaning we’re fighting this virus while waiting on the vaccine to arrive and save the day,” he said. “I tell my senators, “Just act like everyone else has the virus.’ That’s the best way to act. That way you’ll be sure to wear a mask, keep your distance and wash your hands. Use good hygiene.”
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said despite the uncertainty of what’s ahead with the virus, he’s looking forward to dealing with unfinished business of the 2020 session cut short by the pandemic.
“The House will continue to have every precaution in place to ensure we meet in a safe manner, as well as implement a few new protocols, including a new voting system that will allow members to vote from the balcony and allowing some committee meetings to be held virtually, that we hope will make meeting and voting more flexible for members,” Lucas told Statehouse Report, City Paper‘s sister publication. “While last year was like nothing I have ever seen in my 22 years in the House, I am confident that we will continue to do the work of the people of this state in a safe and productive manner, even if some things may look different.”
In the early days of the session, the Statehouse will feel different as the lobby between chambers likely will be closed to the swarms of lobbyists and advocates who try to snag lawmakers for chats. Statehouse insiders also predict in-person meetings in the House and Senate chambers will be limited early with much legislative work done by videoconferences, which have been used successfully since the summer. As members of the General Assembly get vaccinated, more in-person meetings should occur.
“[For] standing committees and subcommittees, we’re trying to work that out now to where we meet virtually or some type of hybrid meeting in the committee rooms that have virtual capability,” Peeler said, adding that he wanted in-person meetings with the public as soon as practical.
Outgoing Black Caucus Chairman Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, said the COVID-19 pandemic also will change the landscape of the legislative body, weighing on everything from debates on the economy and health care to education and how government works.
“I think the most plausible and prudent thing for the state to do is to thoroughly ascertain where we are as a state and devise a four-, eight- and 12-month plan in response to the ebb and flow of the pandemic, which has clearly gotten worse and is out out of control even as we now have multiple sources of the vaccine in play,” he said. “The problem is that we do not have a uniform logistical system set up for distribution which in my opinion should be handled at the federal level.
“Therefore, the top priorities for the General Assembly must be ensuring that our health care system is both efficient and fair, preserving our economy — particularly small businesses — and diversification of our educational system that ensures that all children learn.”