- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s acting House speaker on Tuesday recommended putting a term limit on the position, saying it’s time to ensure no one gets a vice grip on that power.

“It seems the longer a person serves in a position of leadership, the more likely it is that person’s focus shifts from doing his job to preserving his job,” said Speaker Pro Tem Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville. “We don’t want a system of leaders whose focus simply becomes, ‘What can I do to retain my position?’”

The recommendation was among 10 Lucas made before a 17-member panel he created to consider changes to House rules. He gave no suggestion on the number of two-year terms, though afterward he said the panel should consider a maximum of three or four.

Lucas became acting speaker two weeks ago, following the indictment of Speaker Bobby Harrell on misdemeanor charges of misconduct and using campaign donations for personal use. Harrell, R-Charleston, suspended himself while the case plays out. He has been speaker since 2005.

South Carolina’s longest-serving speaker was Rep. Solomon Blott of Barnwell, who wielded power from 1937 to 1946, then again from 1951 to 1973.

The House will choose the next speaker after the November elections. Lucas, second-in-charge since 2010, is considered the front-runner among three candidates. The chamber also is expected to take up proposed rule changes at that organizational session, tentatively set for early December.

Lucas also recommended reforming the House’s ethics rule to include giving its Ethics Committee more ways to punish members and increasing possible fines. The committee also should hire an outside attorney when a current House member is accused of violating ethics laws, to remove a conflict of interest for staff, he said. He called that a start to ethics reform, with legislation needed to do more.

The Legislature has called strengthening the state’s weak ethics laws a priority since 2012 but has yet to agree on how.

Lucas’ other recommendations include:

-Taking away the speaker’s power to hire every House employee and determine their salaries. Under his recommendation, each committee would be able to recommend to the chamber’s Operations and Management Committee who fills new positions and how much they’re paid.

-Limiting members’ ability to fast-track a bill without much input. Skipping the committee process and putting a bill directly on the calendar for floor debate currently requires unanimous agreement. However, sometimes that request is made with few members in the chamber. Lucas says such requests should come after roll call determines a quorum is present.

-Requiring an explanation of a bill before the chamber votes on it. The explainer must then take questions for up to 10 minutes. Too often, Lucas said, either no one’s willing to explain a bill, or someone gives a brief description and walks away from the podium without answering questions, and that practice needs to stop.

-Create a new committee to investigate state agencies to fulfill the legislative oversight component of the government restructuring law that passed earlier this year. Lucas said the law tasks the Legislature with reviewing more than 200 agencies, boards and commissions, and the House isn’t prepared to do that with current committees.

“This is going to be a monumental task and one which the House is not prepared,” he said.

-Clarifying that if a conflict arises with the speaker, the speaker pro tem must take over. State law gives the responsibility of suspending a legislator who’s charged with a crime to the chamber’s presiding officer. That’s how Harrell suspended himself.

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