COLUMBIA — Reforming state ethics and elections laws and better securing taxpayers’ personal information are top priorities for both Republicans and Democrats in the South Carolina House, party leaders said Thursday about the legislative session that starts next week.
Whether to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law will likely be the biggest debate of the session, as Democrats argue it’s a necessity for public health and Republicans contend neither the state nor federal government can afford it.
Republicans hold a 77-to-46 majority in the chamber.
A bill to prevent another ballot-tossing election debacle is expected to move swiftly. A Senate panel advanced to full committee Thursday a proposal designed to clear up the confusion that led to 250 candidates being tossed from primary ballots last year.
“That will be our No. 1 bill Tuesday,” Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said at the annual legislative workshop co-hosted by The Associated Press, South Carolina Press Association and South Carolina Broadcasters Association.
While fixing the election laws top House caucus agendas, Democrats argue reform must include early voting. House Minority Leader Harry Ott said it’s about decreasing long lines and increasing voter participation.
But House Republicans have fought the idea for years. And it appears they’ll keep fighting.
While House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said his caucus would consider it, he added, “We believe Election Day is Election Day,” and that it’s a mistake to open up voting a month or six weeks early before all the campaigning is over.
South Carolina already has a form of early voting. Currently, residents can vote in-person absentee weeks before polls open, but must give an excuse for why they can’t vote on Election Day.
Cyber security ranks second on both the Republican and Democratic agendas.
A computer hacker stole the tax filings of 3.8 million adults and 700,000 businesses in mid-September. Stolen data included unencrypted Social Security numbers of the adults, plus their 1.9 million children.
Legislators hope actions taken since then will prevent another such breach at the Revenue Department, but all state agencies’ computer systems must be evaluated and updated to prevent breaches elsewhere. How much that will cost is unknown. The state is in the process of hiring consultants.
Legislators noted the solutions aren’t all high-tech. Bannister said training is key, because state workers ought to know when not to open an email. Ott said agencies need protocol for when a computer virus or malicious email is detected.
Ethics reform will move slowly through the Legislature, as various groups make their proposals. The House has separate GOP and Democratic panels coming up their plans. The Senate has its own study committee.
And Gov. Nikki Haley created an independent panel co-chaired by two former attorneys general, which is supposed to make its recommendations at month’s end.
Broad issues on the Republicans’ list again include tax reform.
The Legislature still awaits a decision from the state Supreme Court on a case challenging billions of dollars’ worth of sales tax exemptions. Legislators of both parties argue tax policy should be decided by the General Assembly, not the courts.
Last year, the House approved a pared-down bill that eliminated less than $11 million worth of exemptions and reduced the state sales tax by a tiny fraction of a penny-on-the-dollar. But that bill went nowhere in the Senate.
The GOP caucus will revive efforts to reduce the tax rate on manufacturing property from 10.5 percent to 6 percent. That proposal failed last year as critics argued it took money from local governments without any offset from the state, causing local taxes to go up.
Democrats will again seek to expand early childhood education. Their agenda also includes fighting to undo the Budget and Control Board’s decision last August to increase state employees’ health insurance premiums. The 3-2 decision, led by Haley, came despite the Legislature deciding in the state budget to fully foot the increase. A case challenging the board’s ability to disregard the budget and split the cost is before the state Supreme Court.
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