COLUMBIA — Political debacles that angered South Carolina voters in 2012 will again take center stage in the legislative session that starts next week, as lawmakers promise to reform ethics and election laws and better secure taxpayers’ personal data.
Legislators of both parties agree those issues must be tackled to restore public trust. Gov. Nikki Haley also counts ethics reform and cyber security among her highest priorities for 2013.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said his committee will immediately take up legislation that cleans up candidate filing rules and eliminates the potential for another ballot-tossing legal mess. About 250 candidates statewide were removed from primary ballots last June following back-to-back state Supreme Court decisions over what many considered a paperwork technicality.
That, coupled with the Election Day failings of Richland County election officials, “left people with a very sour taste in their mouths of how elections are conducted in this state,” said Martin, R-Pickens.
Bolstered by the hours-long lines Richland County voters endured Nov. 6, Democrats will renew their push for early voting – an idea Republicans have fought for years. That county’s failure to distribute the required number of working voting machines to precincts also has prompted proposals to transfer more of the responsibility for elections to the state.
What’s almost certain to pass is a bill clearing up any confusion on how to file for office. Martin said that will top his committee’s agenda Jan. 8. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said the House will likely address it within the first few days.
Ethics reform, however, is bound to move much slower.
Former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard’s resignation and guilty plea last March, followed by the House Ethics Committee clearing Haley of ethics allegations, brought renewed attention to the state’s weak ethics laws.
House and Senate panels, as well as an independent group created by Haley, have been meeting in the off-session to craft their recommendations on issues including public records requests, campaign spending, lobbying rules and income disclosure for officeholders.
Bannister said the House will move quickly. But Martin said his committee will hold off on that effort until the panel Haley created, co-chaired by two former attorneys general, issues its report. That’s due three weeks after the session starts.
“I think it’s wise to wait on the governor’s commission to include as many of those recommendations in our plan as possible,” he said.
Separate House and Senate study committees also have looked into the massive security breach at the Department of Revenue. In mid-September, a computer hacker stole the tax filings of 3.8 million adults and 700,000 businesses. Stolen data included unencrypted bank account numbers and Social Security numbers of the adults and their 1.9 million children.
The Budget and Control Board, which Haley chairs, agreed to give the revenue agency a $20 million loan from insurance reserves to cover costs incurred so far in the state’s response – the biggest chunk of $12 million, to Experian, must be fully paid by late January.
Haley’s executive budget for 2013-14 recommends $47 million for computer security, including $20 million to pay back the loan, $12 million for computer upgrades at the Revenue Department and $3 million for consultants on how to secure data across state government.
Legislators will debate the $20 million already committed – as some argue only the Legislature can make such commitments, not the governor – as well as how to tighten security in hopes of preventing another breach.
“We’ve got a target on our back now,” said Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, who’s leading the Senate study panel. “Every techno-criminal in the world knows South Carolina’s agencies are a shot in the dark.”
Another issue that will dominate next session is whether to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld the law made expanding Medicaid coverage to more poor adults – including those without children – an option, not a requirement.
Haley is adamantly opposed to the idea, but the decision is ultimately the Legislature’s, not hers. However, she’ll continue to make her opinion known.
“The governor won’t stop fighting the ObamaCare Medicaid expansion that we don’t want and can’t afford,” said spokesman Rob Godfrey.
Democrats will fight to extend the coverage.
“We think it’s important to the future of South Carolina to have a healthy population, and this is the opportunity to do it,” said House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews. Without it, there’s “going to be a huge hole of unserved people, and their health care needs aren’t going to go away just because the governor refuses to deal with the federal government.”
Republican legislative leaders have been noncommittal on their stance. However, Senate President Pro Tem John Courson said he’s concerned about further expanding the health care program, considering that its cost to the state has nearly doubled over the past decade, to $878 million last year.
“Every new dollar it seems we generate is going to Medicaid,” said Courson, R-Columbia, who’s also Senate Education chairman. “That’s hurting education.”
He believes the “big bear” of the 2013 session is yet unknown, depending on what the Supreme Court does with lawsuits over education funding and sales tax exemptions. The high court heard arguments in 2011 on the case challenging billions of dollars in exemptions. It reheard arguments in September on the 19-year-old education case.
“If and when they rule on those, it could cloud everything,” Courson said. “The amounts of money involved could have a tremendous impact.”
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