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On Tuesday, January 10, the 111th annual session of the General Assembly convened in Columbia. By the end of the session's first week, legislators had numerous bills to consider, with a combined total of over 600 pieces of legislation (bills and resolutions) introduced in the General Assembly just that week alone. (By the end of the regular session on June 1, over 1,200 bills and resolutions had been introduced in the House, with over 850 introduced in the Senate.) While these bills and resolutions covered a wide range of topics, legislators focused much of their time and efforts this session on three issues---crime, welfare reform and property tax relief.
The General Assembly's major effort in addressing crime came with approval of H. 3096, a truth-in-sentencing measure designed to bring more uniformity and predictability with regard to the amount of time a prisoner must serve before being eligible for release. Under this act, persons convicted of a newly-designated "no parole offense" (i.e., felony punishable by maximum imprisonment of 20 years or more) must serve at least 80 percent of their imposed sentence before qualifying for work release and must serve at least 85 percent of their imposed sentence before qualifying for early release, discharge or community supervision. Furthermore, persons convicted of a "no parole offense" must complete a community supervision program lasting not longer than 2 years. The act also contains "2 strikes/3 strikes" and you're out" provisions, under which persons convicted twice or three times of certain offenses (mainly violent offenses, though also including some "white collar" and other crimes) must be imprisoned for life without chance for parole. Among other things, the act requires persons convicted of murder either to be sentenced to death, life imprisonment without parole or a mandatory minimum imprisonment of 30 years; adds lethal injection as an option which may be used (as an alternative to the current means of electrocution) to enforce the death penalty; expands the statutory definition of "violent crime" to include three new crimes; and requires juveniles who have not been paroled or released from custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice by age 19 to be transferred to the custody and authority of the Youthful Offender Division of the Department of Corrections at age 19.
Legislators also enacted several other anticrime measures. Following up on work of previous sessions in the area of school violence, legislators passed an act requiring any student who brings a firearm to school to be expelled for at least 1 year. Legislators also passed an act requiring criminal background checks for operators, employees and prospective employees of child day care facilities. Also adopted was an act establishing the offense of child endangerment, under which a person driving a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and with a child as a passenger must be fined and/or imprisoned (with these penalties being in addition to penalties imposed on the driver for driving while under the influence of those substances.)
Welfare reform also received attention during this year's session, with the General Assembly's passage of an act designed to encourage recipients to become economically independent, keep families intact, and discourage abuse of the welfare system. Under this measure, recipients may not receive benefits for more than 24 months out of 120 months or more than 60 months in a lifetime, except in limited circumstances (such as if the head of household is permanently or totally disabled or child care and transportation are not available). The act also requires recipients to sign agreements indicating steps they must take to become employed; prohibits recipients from receiving increased benefits for children born while on welfare; requires minor mothers with children born out of wedlock to live in the home of their parent or guardian; requires recipients under age 18 to maintain attendance in school; allows families receiving AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) to own accounts from which tax-free withdrawals may be made for education, home purchases and other purposes; and increases the asset limit so that a recipient may own a vehicle not exceeding $10,000 in value and $2,500 in all other assets. This welfare reform measure also includes several child support enforcement mechanisms designed to streamline determination of paternity and implementation of child support orders.
Property tax reform generated lengthy debate during the session. In March, the House included approximately $184 million in residential property tax relief in its version of the budget and passed a separate bill requiring a certain percentage of recurring revenues to be applied to residential property tax relief while also imposing spending caps on local governments. When the Senate debated the budget in early May, however, that chamber appropriated $73 million in property tax relief, and the House legislation appropriating recurring revenues for property tax relief and imposing local government spending caps failed to win Senate approval. The House/Senate budget conference committee in mid May began to discuss the level of residential property tax relief that should be granted but failed to reach an agreement in time for the June 1 mandatory adjournment. Conference committee deliberations resumed on Wednesday, June 7, and the following day reached an agreement on property tax relief, to the amount of $195 million.
Term limitations surfaced on the floor of the House this past session, with the House passing a measure which would prohibit legislators and state constitutional officers (attorney general, secretary of state, etc.) from serving more than 12 years over a lifetime in any one of those particular offices. These limits would be retroactive to the 1994 general election for House members and state constitutional officers and would first apply to senators beginning with the 1996 general election. In other words, in the case of a member of the House, for example, the 12-year lifetime limit on service would apply only to service beginning with the current session, thus not counting service prior to the 1995-1996 session. This proposed constitutional amendment is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The General Assembly also addressed a number of other issues this past session. Following up on House and congressional reapportionment plans adopted in 1994, legislators adopted a new reapportionment plan for the Senate, increasing from 10 to 11 the number of districts in that chamber where African Americans constitute a majority of the voting age population. In response to growing concern about debt incurred through lease-purchase agreements, the General Assembly passed an act requiring lease-purchase agreements to receive voter approval if the entity's 8 percent debt limit would be exceeded. In addressing economic development, legislators passed an Enterprise Zone Act, designed to lure jobs to the State's depressed areas, and voted to allow local governments to impose a sales tax or tolls to build new highways. Reacting to concerns that the State's Sunday "Blue Laws" were detrimental to changing consumer and work trends, the General Assembly passed an act allowing counties to exempt themselves from the Blue Laws either by county ordinance or by a referendum held in next year's general election. In addressing consumer affairs, legislators passed an act designed to correct problems associated with deregulation of the consumer finance industry. In response to contamination of drycleaning facilities resulting from release of drycleaning solvents, the General Assembly passed an act which establishes a trust fund to clean up those facilities.
In addressing education, much of the General Assembly's time was spent on restructuring of the Commission on Higher Education, with the House and Senate passing bills on this subject which, although differing in some aspects, both sought to include representation of public colleges and universities on the commission. With the House and Senate unable to agree on a restructuring bill, the matter was brought before conference committee last month, but on June 1 legislators went home without having resolved this issue, although there may be further action on this matter when legislators return on June 12 to wrap up session business. The issue of education also came up during Senate debate over the proposed reopening of the Barnwell Facility to nationwide low-level radioactive waste, with that chamber voting to reopen the facility to nationwide waste, with 30 percent of the proceeds from acceptance of this waste used to provide scholarship grants for persons attending public and independent institutions of higher learning and technical colleges and 70 percent of the proceeds to be used for public school construction, improvements and renovations. The House did not include the Barnwell reopening in its version of the budget, although House budget conferees consented to the Barnwell reopening in the general appropriation act [state budget] for the fiscal year beginning next month.
The House also debated a proposal to implement a state lottery, amending the proposal to require net proceeds remaining after lottery operational costs and awarding of prizes to be spent on property tax relief and assisting the elderly in purchasing prescription medication. Representatives gave second reading to the lottery proposal by a vote of 64- 43 on May 29, but supporters were short of the 83 votes needed to pass this proposed constitutional amendment. House members delayed a third reading of this proposal until after the June 1 adjournment date.
The issue of concealed weapons also generated considerable debate in the House, with that chamber ultimately approving a bill allowing residents who pass a criminal background check and meet age and firearms training requirements to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons. This bill was sent to the Senate in mid May and is pending in that body's Judiciary Committee.
Several workers' compensation bills sparked considerable debate in the House, with the chamber ultimately approving several bills designed to reduce workers' compensation costs and fraud. One bill allows an employer to start workers' compensation payments without waiving his defenses in denying a claim after a good faith investigation and provides a manner for terminating or suspending benefit payments upon presentment of reason. Another bill allows the presumption of total and permanent disability because of a 50 percent of more loss of use of one's back to be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence.
Reform of the state's judicial system, especially with regard to review of qualifications of judicial candidates, was debated at the very end of the session, with the House adopting a proposed constitutional amendment and implementing statutory language to address this subject. The House- adopted proposals increase the minimum age (from 26 to 32) and legal experience (from 5 to 10 years) required of a person wishing to serve on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Court and Family Court; establish a judicial merit selection commission to assist the General Assembly in selecting qualified candidates for the courts listed above and for the Administrative Law Judge Division; and prohibit legislators from electing any candidates to these courts unless the candidates have been found qualified by the commission. The proposals also require sitting legislators to resign before applying to the commission for a judicial vacancy and prohibits former legislators from being granted the privilege of the floor of the General Assembly while their applications are pending before the commission and while their nominations are pending before the General Assembly. A House bill to increase the number of judges on the Court of Appeals, Circuit Court and Family Court remained stalled on the House calendar at the end of the session; however, the Senate inserted in its version of the budget a proviso increasing the number of these judges, and the House conferees on the budget conference committee consented to these additional judges.
Since this was only the first year of this two-year session, legislation introduced this past year but not yet acted upon may also be considered in 1996, and a number of other issues will await legislators when they return in January. The issue of private property rights---i.e., whether landowners should receive compensation when land use regulations substantially reduce the value of the owner's property---is addressed under H. 3790. Several bills addressing auto insurance await further action, including among others S. 628, a bill addressing various aspects of the auto insurance market such as recoupment fees, offering of different types of rates, and mandates to write certain types of auto insurance coverage. Among education issues awaiting consideration next year are bills to establish charter schools within the state's public schools, eliminate tenure at the state's public colleges and universities, and allow home school students to participate in interscholastic activities within their school district. With regard to the subject of motor vehicles, several bills are pending which would increase the minimum age to qualify for a driver's license and which would require applicants for a license to complete a driver education course. Several bills would change the process for selection of various public officials, with some bills requiring the adjutant general and state superintendent of education to be appointed instead of elected, another bill requiring the joint election of the governor and lieutenant governor, while another bill calls for popular election of the state's insurance commissioner. Two bills examine various means of enhancing direct public input in the lawmaking process through initiative petition. Further restructuring of state government may be undertaken next year as legislators consider bills to abolish the commissions governing the Departments of Mental Health and Transportation and to require those agencies to be governed by a director appointed by the governor.