- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Bills that give military retirees a tax cut, shorten South Carolina’s legislative session by three weeks and ban ticket quotas in law enforcement are among the potential laws heading to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk.

The Legislature passed a flurry of bills Thursday in the legislative session’s last hours. But ethics reform bills that legislators have called a priority for four years could be dead again.

There’s still a chance they could reach consensus on measures that send complaints against legislators to independent investigators and require all officeholders to disclose who pays them.

Because they made it to panels that try to compromise on the chambers’ differing versions of bills, they stay alive for the special session later this month. But legislators may take up little beyond Haley’s vetoes then.

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MILITARY TAX CUT

Legislation touted as enticing working-age veterans who served 20 years in uniform to retire in South Carolina passed with minutes to spare.

The tax benefits would phase in over five years. By 2020, military retirees younger than 65 could deduct $17,500 of their income earned in the state. Retirees 65 or older could exempt up to $30,000. Once fully phased in, the cuts are expected to reduce state revenues by $18 million.

The House’s initial version allowed for bigger benefits sooner, reducing revenues by an estimated $31 million once fully implemented in three years. But with the 5 p.m. deadline looming, Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, encouraged his colleagues to accept the Senate’s changes.

“At this late hour, this is the best we can do,” he said. “We want people to retire and relocate here. They’re at an age they can contribute to the economy.”

Sen. Gerald Malloy had blocked the bill’s passage, saying military retirees already have many benefits the state’s poor do not. He argued it would be better to expand Medicaid eligibility.

He said he’s concerned legislators “continue to pass bills that will end up benefiting some and not others.”

But he allowed a vote after senators agreed to the five-year phase-in.

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ETHICS REFORM

The House and Senate are still far apart on a bill requiring complaints against legislators to be independently investigated.

Currently, House and Senate ethics committees oversee the campaign filings and handle complaints against their colleagues, while the State Ethics Commission oversees all other public officials. Critics, including Haley, equate the arrangement to “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

The legislation would revamp the State Ethics Commission and expand its duties to legislators. However, House and Senate ethics panels would still get the final say over their members. The versions differ in who decides whether a legislator likely violated the law and when allegations become public.

Under the House’s latest version, the revamped commission would make that determination. A probable cause finding would trigger documents becoming publicly available. The appropriate legislative panel would then hold a public hearing.

The Senate wants the commission to issue recommendations to the legislative panels.

House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, the bill’s sponsor, said that won’t boost confidence in the system.

“Their version will keep the same cloud over us,” an obviously frustrated Pope told his colleagues from the podium. “I don’t know where we can go, folks. We have given and given and given, but maybe they really want it to die.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said he’s still optimistic a compromise can pass when the Legislature returns June 15. The hang-up is that some senators believe the commission would vote for probable cause just to embarrass legislators. Martin said he doubts that.

“But, unfortunately, some of the members in there have a very strong opinion about it,” he said.

Another ethics bill on life support would require all elected and public officials to report the sources of their private income - but not how much they are paid. Currently, officeholders must report only public income sources, such as legislative pay, on their annual “statement of economic interest.”

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Associated Press Writers Susanne Schafer and Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report from Columbia.

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