Sean Rayford file photo

The joke around the very busy Statehouse during the last week of its regular 2021 session was there was more action down the street at the University of South Carolina where President Bob Caslen resigned abruptly.

Still, there was more than enough going on in Columbia Tuesday through Thursday as lawmakers finished up regular business with a flurry of last-minute activity. And big-interest bills on hate crimes and medical marijuana already are teed up for next year. 

Veteran S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said the 2021 session was a little weird because of things that were done and not finished.

Cobb-Hunter

“It is an embarrassment that the South Carolina Senate chose not to take action on the hate crimes bill so we remain one of the few states without a hate crimes bill. That should have passed,” she said today. “What has passed that we could have done without was the heartbeat (abortion) bill and the execution by firing squad.”  

Cobb Hunter said the legislature still has more work cut out for it, particularly in making “meaningful reform of our educational system. We still have not provided adequate compensation for state employees. We still have people in South Carolina who don’t have access to quality health care and a number of other quality-of-life issues that we keep kicking the can down the road on.”

Here’s a look at what’s ahead between now and next year:

Headed to the governor

Gov. Henry McMaster is expected to sign several measures in the coming days, including high-profile legislation dealing with guns, executions, plastic and slow drivers.

McMaster
  • Open carry. Lawmakers sent the governor a bill to allow the open carry of pistols for gun owners who get training. The controversial measure, which won approval with compromises between House members and senators, will require gun owners to have concealed weapon permit training and background checks. South Carolina will be the 46th state to allow so-called “open carry” legislation.
  • Firing squads. A bipartisan measure to allow the state to use firing squads as an alternative to execute prisoners is expected to be signed into law. Currently, death row inmates have to pick between electrocution and lethal injection. But because the drug isn’t available and inmates choose it, executions have ground to a halt for a decade. The new measure sets electrocution as the default, with the firing squad as the alternative. 
  • Slowpoke drivers. Legislators also sent McMaster a bill that would penalize slow drivers in the left lane of interstate highways. They said it was a safety measure, not a speeding measure. More.
  • Other measures. Some pro-conservation bills headed to McMaster focus on making solar power more accessible for state residents, extending electronic waste regulations and improving waste tire disposal rules.

Headed to conference

Next month, legislators will meet during a special session to talk about two measures: the state’s $11 billion budget and reform of the state’s utility, Santee Cooper.

Tynan
  • Budget conference. Three lawmakers from each chamber are expected to be appointed June 8 to a compromise committee to hammer out budget differences. They’re expected to meet soon after to allow all members to vote on the budget on or after June 21. Budget vetoes are expected to be considered on June 29. The 2021-22 fiscal year starts July 1.
  • Santee Cooper. After lawmakers punted on selling the utility, they passed differing versions of reform measures, which sent the legislation on Santee Cooper to a conference committee. They’ll likely take up a compromise during the June session. According to John Tynan of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, “while there are some uncertainties about the final bill, it is clear that it will include requirements for studying clean energy and coal plant retirement, approval by the Public Service Commission for energy generation plans and facilities, provisions for an equitable transition for communities and workers surrounding coal plants, considerations for diversity in board appointments and increased oversight by the Office of Regulatory Staff.”

Waiting for the fall

Legislators also will meet in special session in the fall to deal with reapportionment of S.C. House, S.C. Senate and U.S. House districts as required by the U.S. Constitution. Redistricting is late this year because data from the U.S. Census Bureau won’t be delivered until the end of September.

Lawmakers also will debate two supplemental appropriations bills in the fall — how to spend $2.1 billion in federal money from the American Rescue Act and $525 million from a Savannah River Site settlement.

Wait ‘til next year

Two of the most anticipated of the 2021 session — approval of medical marijuana to ease suffering and passage of hate crimes legislation — didn’t make it through the General Assembly’s maze this year. Both will be top-of-the-ticket items next year. 

Hate crimes legislation has been important to moderates and progressives for years, but never got over the finish line. This year, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce got behind the measure and it went through the House and got to the Senate floor, only to be stalled at the last minute by nine senators.

Business leaders are encouraged and say they’ll push hard next year for final passage: ““Why in the world would we miss this golden opportunity to send a message to the rest of the world that, in fact, we are the welcoming people we know ourselves to be as we compete for talent to fill the jobs of the future that will help keep South Carolina moving forward?” S.C. Chamber President and CEO Bob Morgan asked Thursday.

Other measures on tap next year include consideration of a constitutional convention, reform to the state’s election laws, establishment of regulations for plastic pellets (nurdles), reform of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, and family leave for state employees.