South Carolina General Assembly's special session rolls on with no end in sight


COLUMBIA (AP) — The South Carolina General Assembly special session rolled on Wednesday without an end in sight as the House spent about an hour dealing with a few bills and vetoes, and the simmering dispute with the Senate over the budget burst into public view.
The House is waiting for a bond reform bill and a budget everyone agrees is important, but can't agree on what's in them. And there is a July 1 deadline looming for the spending plan.
In mid-May, House Speaker Murrell Smith told his chamber that he anticipated ending the special session by June 1 so they could have a full seven months off for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Smith was in Columbia on Wednesday along with 110 of his House colleagues. There were more absences than usual among the 124 members, however, for things such as knee replacement surgery or a two-week family vacation.
"I always want to be out of here as quick as I can. We are part-time legislators," Smith said after Wednesday's session. "I'm ready to go tomorrow if we can get conference reports on these other bills."
After Smith spoke, a committee of three House members and three senators met and made public the biggest obstacle to a deal on the $13 billion budget: $112 million the Senate wants to spend to get the state's first veterinary school at Clemson University built and running. The House is offering $8 million for the project.
Smith isn't on that conference committee, but he was on the mind of fellow Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler.
"The sooner the Speaker of the House of Representatives realizes that he is not the Speaker of the Senate, the better," Peeler said at the late afternoon Wednesday meeting.
The House and Senate are also trying to work out different versions of a bill to change the state's bond system for people charged with crimes. The House adds a five-year sentence if someone is convicted of a violent crime while out on bond.
The Senate rejected that idea, saying if the suspect was not convicted of the initial crime, then it would be unconstitutional to add a penalty on for that crime.
The spat has Gov. Henry McMaster weighing in. He has spent the past few months urging the General Assembly to pass some bond reform bill, even if it doesn't have the extra penalties he wants.
"I'm asking again and again that the General Assembly pass bond reform and they also increase the criminal penalties for illegal gun possession," the governor said at a Tuesday news conference.
Standing behind McMaster was a state trooper shot in the face during an April traffic stop by a man with a stolen gun who had posted bond for criminal charges in Georgia.
The extra penalties for gun possession may have been partially solved by the House, which on Wednesday approved a bill that specifies trafficking fentanyl as a crime, setting stiff penalties. Attached to that bill is a proposal mandating a maximum five-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of trafficking drugs while in possession of a weapon.
McMaster and House leadership wanted the additional penalty for all felonies, but they put the provision on an open carry of guns proposal that has struggled to get Senate support.
Along with the fentanyl bill, the House also Wednesday passed a Senate-approved compromise overhauling boating safety rules. The new rules will require anyone born after July 1, 2007, to take a safety course to get a boating license.
The House gaveled out after about 40 minutes of business. Smith told them to be ready to return next week and the week after that.
"My goal is to work until we conclude those outstanding reports," Smith said. "I thought we'd be gone by now. Unfortunately, conference committees don't move at the speed we wish."