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Charleston Business

‘Change everything’ resulted in ‘do nothing’

By Jason Zacher

“It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegon” —that’s either the start of the Prairie Home Companion monologue, or the wrap-up of the 2019 state legislative session. 

I joked with the editors of this publication that a “winners and losers” column or an “accomplishments” column would be awfully short this year. However, publications aren’t interested in publishing blank pages, so here’s my best crack at a summary.

There were high hopes when the session started back in January. The inauguration of Gov. Henry McMaster gave the entire session a feeling of a fresh start. There is a new, palpable spirit of cooperation between the General Assembly and Gov. McMaster that has been lacking since Mark Sanford brought the piglets Pork and Barrel to the Statehouse lobby in 2004. The governor said in his inaugural address that we could “change everything” about our public schools. Members of the General Assembly were optimistic and boasted about all the tough challenges facing our state that would be addressed with big ideas.

Higher teacher pay. Education reform. Pension reform. The future of Santee Cooper. Criminal justice reform. Tax reform.

In the end of those major issues, only higher teacher pay became law. Admittedly, many of these issues are weighty—though several of them have been in legislative study committees for months if not years. (It makes more than one Statehouse watcher pine for the 2010 protest resolution filed by an Upstate member that called for a study committee to “ensure that study committees are studied to study the optimal use of study committees to ensure study committees are neither being formed needlessly nor studying issues already sufficiently studied; and to ensure that study committees are actually studying when they say they are studying.”)

Since they didn’t become law, the other issues fell into a number of other categories:
  • Came from a study committee and assigned to another government agency to complete (Santee Cooper),
  • Studied to death and watered down (education reform),
  • Filed too late to be considered (tax reform), or
  • Not seriously addressed (pension reform). 
A number of other items did wind their way through: the bill giving tax breaks to the Carolina Panthers to relocate their headquarters to Rock Hill was probably the biggest one. An expansion of powerful tax credits for exporters using the Port of Charleston and supporting the S.C. Research Authority passed. New requirements requiring DOT to help pay for local utility relocation during road projects was also among the little victories. 

It was frustrating to see the one-sentence Angel Investor Tax Credit Extension fall victim to political games, threatening future investments for our state’s high-growth entrepreneurs. It was even more frustrating to see the much-ballyhooed education reform package get watered down and stripped of many of the major reforms that would transform education. 

If you can’t tell by the presidential candidate train that continues to roll through South Carolina, 2020 is an election year, and since both the Senate and the House are on the ballot, getting major reforms over the line will be difficult. Tax reform and pension reform are the most likely to get caught in election-year wrangling. The education bill could still get through and some resolution to the Santee Cooper saga should happen by the end of next session.

For business leaders, it’s important to remember that lobbying doesn’t end on sine die. Talking to your legislators during the off-session ensures momentum next January. With your assistance, we can ensure these issues get attention when they return, and we can ensure these issues will become election issues.

Thank you for everything you did to push these issues in 2019. We hope you will continue your activism next year so our state will remain the best place to start or locate a business.