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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Legislature's attempt to meet as quickly as possible Wednesday to assure the state can keep operating while they stay out of session and safe from the peak of the coronavirus outbreak ran into a familiar roadblock.
Several senators opposed a bill to allow the state to keep spending money if it doesn't pass a budget by the end of June because it placed restrictions on state-owned utility Santee Cooper.
House Speaker Jay Lucas said the falling apart of negotiations over Santee Cooper meant the House and Senate also couldn't reach an agreement to set the parameters of any special session needed after the May 14 deadline in the state constitution for the session to end.
The emergency spending proposal sets aside $200 million for emergency COVID-19 spending and gives the governor wide power to spend it. It sets aside $15 million for adjustments needed to assure South Carolina's June 9 primary can continue with the flexibility to make more changes to voting.
The proposal allows the state Education Superintendent wide powers to adjust requirements like class time, freezes teacher salaries and lets state agencies furlough employees if their budgets get out of balance.
The House passed it unanimously in just over an hour of debate, sent it to the Senate and went home.
"We're talking health care. They're playing politics," said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Democrat from Columbia.
The fate of Santee Cooper has dominated the 2019 and 2020 sessions and a law passed last year directed lawmakers to decide whether to sell the public utility by the end of this year.
Santee Cooper owes $4 billion of its minority stake in two nuclear reactors that were halted during construction.
The deliberate debate over what to do with the utility halted when the General Assembly stopped meeting as COVID-19 started to spread. Leadership in the House and Senate included in the broad emergency bill a proposal to freeze Santee Cooper in place, allowing it to not approve any contracts longer than a year to buy more time to decide its fate.
But Republican Sen. Larry Grooms, who represents Moncks Corner where Santee Cooper is headquartered, said that could keep the utility from operating, especially in an emergency where people are being told not to go out.
"Imagine trying to stay at home without the lights," Grooms said.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said all leaders in the General Assembly want to do is delay the discussion of Santee Cooper's fate until the COVID-19 crisis is past next year.
"We definitely don't need to be fighting about it now. That's ridiculous," the Republican from Edgefield said.
At least 20 of the 170 lawmakers stayed home, including Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Republican from Florence who turns 89 next Tuesday. A fellow senator said two of Leatherman's children, who are both doctors, advised he stay away from the Statehouse.
There were gloves, masks and bandannas. Some senators stayed outside the chamber, only entering to vote or when needed. House members spread out into the balcony and into chairs against the wall.
When the House adjourned, it set no date to return.
Sen. Thomas McElveen, a Democrat from Sumter, had asked the governor and House and Senate leaders last week to either postpone Wednesday's session until closer to the mid-May deadline to sign the resolution detailing what they can come back for after the regular session ends. On Wednesday, he posted a photo on social media of him at the Statehouse in a mask made by members of Bethesda Church of God.
"We should have met at a later date to perform the duties that are absolutely required of us. Further, we had every opportunity to convene in a safer and more spacious location," he wrote in the post, citing his letters last week that implored the General Assembly to meet, if they had to, at a larger venue, exampling sporting and concert arenas in Columbia.
South Carolina reported more than 2,415 COVID-19 cases statewide as of Wednesday 2,552 afternoon. State health officials also reported 12 additional deaths to bring the current number of fatal cases to 63.
In Sumter, there are now 117 confirmed cases of the virus and three deaths. Clarendon County now has 72, Lee 22.
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