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2008 Session Roundups: South Carolina

South Carolina's legislative session was marked by a failure to pass major pieces of legislation such as healthcare and payday-lending reforms, the passage of a regressive immigration bill, and significant time spent on small, controversial measures such as posting the ten commandments in public buildings, “I Believe”? license plates, and outlawing pants worn below the hips.  Fixing budget deficits and hiring much needed additional judges were two other important issues that could not get resolved while less consequential legislation was debated.  In the end, lawmakers showed how important those small measures were by overriding vetoes of bills like S 577, which increased penalties for attacking a coach in a sports league.

Immigration: South Carolina has the fastest growing Hispanic population in the United States, and immigration is a hot-button issue in the state.  This year the legislature enacted, HB 4400, immigration “reform”? legislation which will do nothing to solve the problems faced by workers and will do much to harass immigrants and employers.

  • The legislation mandates that employers verify the identity of employees either with a South Carolina driver’s license or the federal E-verify system.  The General Accounting Office has outlined the problems associated with mandating E-verify and how it reduces state revenue by increasing the number of workers being paid under the table.
  • The legislation also denies non-emergency medical care to undocumented adult immigrants by state funded clinics and hospitals.  Because federal law requires that care be given without discrimination, local healthcare providers are facing a significant challenge in following the law.  Perhaps in recognition of this, no state agency is tasked with enforcing the new restrictions.
  • The legislation prohibits undocumented immigrants from attending public institutions of higher education or receiving state funded scholarships.
  • The legislation directs the chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the federal government regarding enforcement of federal immigration law.  It also allows for law enforcement personnel to be deputized and trained for these duties.

Payday Lending: The Senate passed a package of payday lending reforms that were held by a House committee chairman and prevented from receiving a vote by the whole body.  The bill, SB 398, would implement a 7-day waiting period after taking out a payday loan, created a registry of borrowers, and barred borrowers from taking out more than one loan at a time.  This was a major victory for the lending industry which hired a herd of lobbyists and contributed generously to lawmakers’ campaign funds in order to kill the legislation.  Recent figures are not available, but the industry made almost $300,000 in donations to South Carolina officials from 2000 to 2006.  This is a small fee to protect the estimated $186 million a year in fees the industry generates in the state.

Healthcare 

  • SCHIP expansion: Legislature passed, and overrode a veto, to expand SCHIP by $21 million, allowing an additional 88,000 children to enroll in the program.
  • HIV/AIDS:  The state passed a 2.4 million dollar appropriation for AIDS Drug Assistance Program to help low income HIV positive South Carolinians purchase medication.  The funds, championed by Rep. Joe Neal, are expected to decrease the waiting list of people trying to obtain assistance through the program.  Providing the medication is an overall cost saver as it keeps people working and reduces their overall healthcare costs.  However, federal cuts and growing demand mean that all needs will not be met. 
  • On the patient privacy front, the legislature failed to override the governor’s veto of legislation repealing the requirement that health clinics inform schools when a student tests positive for HIV.  Sen. Brad Hutto, the bill’s sponsor, noted that this was the only veto of a bill that would save lives because students are deterred from getting tested knowing their school will be notified of a positive result.
  • Cigarette Tax:  The governor vetoed HB 3567, a 50-cent per pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax that lawmakers hoped to devote to increasing health coverage through Medicaid, claiming that it was irresponsible to pay for healthcare through cigarette taxes.  Instead he wants to use the money to give “tax relief”? through an optional flat tax.

Criminal Justice 

  • DNA Databank:  The governor vetoed S 439, a bill the legislature passed requiring that police obtain DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony or a small number of misdemeanors.  The bill has been vetoed two years in a row, with the governor recognizing that the privacy implications of collecting DNA samples from those who are not convicted of a crime are grave.
  • Sex Offender Residence Restrictions:  Sex offenders whose victims were children will now be prohibited from living within one thousand feet of a school, playground, church, day-care center, or recreation facility where children congregate.  Sadly, this misguided legislation will not make children safer.  Such laws not only fail to address real risk factors for sexual offending, they also make it hard for offenders to find housing, which is an important element in preventing re-offence.  

Clean Energy

  • The legislature overrode vetos to enact tax incentives to encourage the sale of energy-efficient mobile homes and a sales-tax-free month for energy-efficient appliances
  • In response to BP’s decision to sell only pre-blended gasoline on the wholesale market, legislation was passed that requires gasoline wholesalers to sell pure gasoline so that distributors and retailers can blend in the ethanol themselves.  This will save money for retailers who pay more for the blended product than gasoline and ethanol separately.  The bill may run afoul of a constitutional limits requiring single subject bills which was just reiterated in a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court.  However, the legislature overrode a governor's veto, and BP has now sued to block the law.