COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers are coming back to the Statehouse for a day next week, but not everyone is happy the Republican dominated House and Senate will be in session as the coronavirus spreads.
"What kind of message are we sending when we try to get 170 legislators and staff members and other people into one place when we are telling everyone else in the state not to gather in groups of more than three?" said Democratic state Sen. Mia McLeod of Columbia.
The General Assembly session would end on May 14 if lawmakers took no action, leaving in limbo changes needed for class time requirements and graduation prerequisites for students, possible voting changes for the June 9 primaries and changes to the state spending plan as it seems likely the state's expected $1.8 billion in additional money will be greatly reduced.
House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler, both Republicans, said they consulted health experts before deciding to meet Wednesday afternoon and they said the spread of the virus would continue and conditions get more severe over the next several weeks.
"While I hope for the absolute health and safety of each and every member of this House, I believe our return is essential. There absolutely is risk involved in returning to Columbia. No one can deny that," Lucas wrote in a letter to House members.
The desks in the House are made for two members, but Lucas is asking just one member to sit there while the other uses chairs against the wall or the spectator balcony.
Senators will be allowed to use any space in and around the chamber and balcony, Peeler said. Ten of the 46 senators are 70 or older, the age group most at risk with COVID-19.
McLeod won't be there Wednesday. She has sickle cell anemia and doesn't want to risk her life.
"Senate and House 'leaders' may not value my life, but my sons do. My family does. I do. And if I'm no longer here, the State of SC may express a few condolences…maybe even send a plaque to commemorate my brief years of service--- and then quickly go on about its business," McLeod wrote in a blog post about COVID-19.
McLeod said the Senate could change its rules with unanimous agreement and allow videoconferencing. The Senate Democratic Caucus suggested meeting in smaller committees via video or in large rooms, then meeting as a group closer to mid-May.
Sen. Thomas McElveen sent a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster asking him to move the General Assembly session.
The Democrat from Sumter cites a part of the state constitution that says: "if the casualties of war or contagious disease render it unsafe to meet at the seat of government, the Governor, by proclamation, may appoint a more secure and convenient place of meeting."
McElveen said COVID-19 is certainly a contagious disease, suggesting lawmakers could meet at the University of South Carolina's large basketball arena or football stadium so members could spread out.
McMaster said Friday that House and Senate leaders have not made that request.
In 1860, South Carolina's convention to decide if it would secede from the United States was moved from Columbia to Charleston because of smallpox.
While Senate Democrats have been vocal about their problems with Wednesday's session, House Democrats plan to take precautions but be in Columbia, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said.
"I don't think any of us want to be there, including the Speaker," the Columbia Democrat said. "But we need to be there."
Rutherford said he is reminding reluctant Democrats if they don't pass the bills to allow the state to continue to spend money if a budget isn't passed by July 1 and allow it to meet in special session after the May 14 adjourn date, then the governor could spend the more than $1 billion in federal help expected however he pleases.
"Without us, this state basically turns into a dictatorship of one man," Rutherford said.
Rutherford is telling colleagues to take simple safety steps like social distancing and washing their hands or using gloves.
"I'm going to be wearing a mask. I'm not stupid," Rutherford said.
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