Thursday, January 07, 2010

S.C. Legislature - outlook for 2010 - Part 4

(This is the last of four parts. See part 1, part 2, part 3)

Afternoon legislative panel primarily on government restructuring and the censure resolution in the House against Gov. Mark Sanford.

  • Sen. Larry Martin (Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee)
  • Sen. Brad Hutto (Democrat and member of the tort reform committee)
  • Sen. Danny Verdin (Republican chairman of Agriculture and Natural Resources and member of Medical Affairs heading a subcommittee looking at combining state agencies)
  • Sen. Jake Knotts (Republican and opponent of Gov. Mark Sanford)
  • Rep. Jim Harrison (Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee)
  • Rep. Kenny Bingham (Republican. Ways and Means member and heading ad hoc committee looking at restructuring of Employment Security Commission)
  • Rep. Bill Sandifer (Republican chairman of Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee)
  • Rep. James Smith (Democrat and member of Constitutional Law subcommittee)

Restructuring of Employment Security Commission (Background)
Rep. Kenny Bingham: Look at the entire agency. Big job. Anticipates also having Legislative Audit Council report within a couple of weeks.

Sandifer: One of the problems is that we're dealing with a lot of federal regulations, not just state laws. So we have to conform to the feds, too. Much more complex.

Why is it necessary to restructure the ESC?
Bingham: Problems in the insurance trust fund have allowed some employers "to overuse or abuse" the system, legally but still abuse. Plus the fund is running into the red ($600 million in red with projections of next year as high as $1.7 billion). We were not notified by the commissioners as the law requires. We're the only state with a commission. Most are part of governor's Cabinet. Need to ensure it is a temporary cushion, that it is not being used for people fired for cause, etc.

Restructuring of health agencies. (Background on DHEC, on DDSN, overall background)
Verdin: Expects lively debate when full Medical Affairs Committee begins taking it up later this month. Took unusual step of allowing people to submit testimony online.
Disabilities and Special Needs: Require it to have regulations relating to fees and fee increases, also transfer licensing and related responsibility to Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Merging of Mental Health, Continuum of Care, and Alcohol and other Drug Abuse Services into a new Department of Behavioral Services: We are not recommending the merger. Instead, elevate Mental Health to a Cabinet-level agency but keep the governing board.

Department of Health and Environmental Control: We are recommending it be elevated to Cabinet-level status. There are benefits from having a unified environmental and public health agency, but more should be required from the commissioners regarding their job in hearing appeals. So proposing standards for commissioners: four-year bachelor's degree plus five years of work experience in field related to department's work. Also would require hiring internal auditor. Expects "considerable debate" on Cabinet-level status.

Hutto (one of those who wanted changes in the agencies): DDSN not going to go anywhere in Senate. Mental Health likely to get Cabinet-level status. DHEC won't be split, but we will streamline the appellate process. The real issue comes down to whether it is a Cabinet-level agency and so you "politicize" the appointment of the DHEC head. The agency oversees several politically sensitive areas, so he has his doubts it will get Cabinet status.

Harrison: In the last session we selected DDSN and Mental Health to move to Cabinet-level agencies. DDSN spends hundreds of millions of dollars but is governed by a part-time board that does not have the time to resolve all the agency issues and is too easily manipulated by staff. Hopes Senate will send DDSN bill back to House, but if not will pursue it another day.
He would like to take up the proposal (requiring constitutional amendment) that would have the governor and lieutenant governor running on the same ticket.

FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)
Smith: Wants to talk about Freedom of Information Act. The impeachment proceedings against the governor showed the FOIA process is broke. Has been talking with colleagues about a unified retention policy for records, also possible ombudsman that allows for dispute resolution short of suing. He also wants to look at cost reform to keep agencies and governments from using their highest-paid employees and then levying charges based on that. Also, "I think we need to look at some penalties." These are things already done in many other states.

Later, Bingham and Knotts said they both support FOIA changes.

Governor/lieutenant governor on same ticket (and censure of governor)
Knotts: Gov. Sanford's escapades have shown the importance of the lieutenant governor's position, but he does not support having them run on same ticket. "Sometimes you need a little change."
Martin: There will be a discussion about this proposal. Doesn't know of any case where a governor asked a lieutenant governor to take over. Reality in other states is that when the governor is gone, the governor's staff runs the office, and these days governors rarely are out of touch. But should consider eliminating the office as some other states have. "That's something I think we should seriously look at if we want to streamline government." If we keep the lieutenant governor, make a job for him, perhaps heading the Commerce Department or some other agency.
Harrison: Just wants it clear that if the governor is out of state, the lieutenant governor can act in case of emergency (it's in the constitution, but Sanford did not tell Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer he was heading to Argentina). If both of them are working together, it's less likely the lieutenant governor would not know of the governor's absence.
Martin: It's been this way for years – governors and lieutenant governors have seldom exchanged that information.
Hutto: Doubts the same-ticket proposal will pass. Long tradition of elected lieutenant governor. Doesn't expect voters would change the constitution. "As I read the public now, they want the chance to help us make decisions." Asking them to change they would see as taking away one of their chances to do that.
Verdin: Agrees with Hutto. S.C. residents have had eight years to consider government restructuring, and he does not see any call from his constituents to give up ballot access. "It's just not out there."
Knotts: Lieutenant governor already has a job – overseeing the office of the elderly. And he does a good job. … "It's solely a communications problem between the governor and the lieutenant governor, the governor and the legislature. I don't know anyone he hasn't been in a fight with." As for the censure resolution against Sanford, if it comes to the Senate, he'll move to take it to committee because he won't participate in a "whitewash." Should have looked into use of state planes. Should have cross-examined witnesses, not just taken affidavit. Sanford already looks bad from fighting for so long. "And I'm not willing to take up the time of the Senate" with many other important issues pending. "It can go to committee and it can die in committee." Censure means little anyhow, just "a slap on the hand." People don’t understand why he isn't being impeached after all they've read. The censure is just political cover.

Harrison: The censure bill is expected to be taken up in the House Jan. 13.

Martin: Wants to go on record in condemning Sanford's conduct. Many of the other issues will be taken up, as the House Speaker said, in other bills and venues during the session. "We should take it up, we should act upon it very quickly and move on." He thinks it can be handled in 30 minutes if no one objects. Don't "leave it to fester in a committee."

Knotts: "I'm an old boxer and the fight's over. No need to keep kicking him."

Sandifer: We're missing part of the point, which is that "this governor's actions … will have a profound impact on how government is run in the state of South Carolina from henceforth. … a profound impact on the way we treat each other." Called into question is the assumption that we are trying to do the best for S.C.. "We've had to do business a totally different way as a result of this governor being in office." We used to send legislation to the governor with the expectation it would be signed into law. Now, "We fully anticipate he will veto everything sent and we must make every bill veto proof when it leaves the House and Senate." All of this says to us is that how government is run has to be looked at critically to make sure character does come first.

Without a lieutenant gov, what would succession be?
Senate president pro tem and then speaker of House.

Tort reform?
Martin: Not sure can ever get folks together completely, but there are three to four major sections out of 10 we might move forward on. Limiting punitive damages is one. Give the state a competitive advantage while keeping things fair. However, little chance of getting whole bill through.
Harrison: Met with the speaker and both sides of issue. Speaker said he'd like to see a bill passed. "He said he would use his 'extra influence' if he had to but he hoped he didn’t have to." Thinks can get a bill with two to three items to the point where trial lawyers, while they may not support it, "at least do not actively oppose it." Sees room for negotiation.
Hutto: We already have a business-friendly state. "This is an attempt to trample on people's right to speak in the jury box."
Sandifer: Interesting that Harrison, who chairs Judiciary, "the lawyers' committee," and I, who chairs Labor, Commerce and Industry, "the business committee," are working on trying to achieve something. "We are not trying to trample on people's rights."

Talk about opening FOIA, what about opening Ethics Commission process and House/Senate ethics committees? Martin: Sees it as a protection of the integrity of the process, from having it abused by political adversaries. He favors "pretty serious" criminal penalties for those who level scurrilous complaints. "But then you have to read people's minds, and that's pretty hard to do."

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