- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s most powerful politician said Tuesday that he has no intention of stepping down as the state Senate’s leader, despite Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler’s request that he do so.

Peeler dropped the bomb at the beginning of the Legislature’s special session when he asked Sen. Hugh Leatherman to immediately resign as Senate president pro tem. Peeler said his Republican colleague is capable of leading the Senate and being Senate Finance chairman, but not of occupying both roles simultaneously.

The pro tem’s job is to “help guide the Senate and make the Senate function,” said Peeler, R-Gaffney.

But this session was clearly dysfunctional, he said, as evidenced by not having a budget two weeks before the fiscal year starts and the Senate’s inability to address top-priority items, including fixing South Carolina’s roads and strengthening ethics laws.

Leatherman, a senator since 1981, said he has no other comment to Peeler’s request other than refusing to step aside. Still, Peeler said, his request should start a needed conversation.

Senators voted Leatherman their leader last June. The Florence Republican has chaired the Senate’s budget-writing committee for 15 years.

Peeler called that vote an experiment that ultimately proved both jobs are too much for one person.

“I’m not fixing blame. I’m trying to fix the problem,” Peeler said. “It’s no reflection on the senator from Florence.”

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, was among just two senators who voted last year against giving Leatherman an additional leadership role. He reiterated Tuesday that he believes it consolidated too much power.

“South Carolina is better served when power is dispersed,” Davis said.

The Legislature’s main responsibility in the special session is passing a state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Both chambers worked Tuesday on two bills that need to pass before a budget compromise is possible.

The Senate passed the “capital reserve” bill that spends roughly $85 million of surplus on one-time spending, including buying new school buses and addressing colleges’ maintenance backlogs. The House passed its version in March. The bill usually moves in tandem with the main budget bill, but it got stuck in the Senate because of debates on borrowing, abortion and gas tax increases. Davis spent the session’s final weeks filibustering the capital reserve to block the Senate from getting to the road-funding bill.

Despite the extended debate, the Senate returned to the House, on a 37-5 vote, a proposal unchanged from what the Senate tentatively approved May 13. Davis said he’s disappointed an amendment failed that would have put a large chunk of the money toward roadwork.

Meanwhile, the House passed a supplemental bill that designates roughly $300 million in additional revenue certified by the state’s economic advisory board May 29. It distributes about half of that money to counties to fix existing roads.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, proposed allowing legislators to take up the road-funding bill in the special session, but four Republican senators who oppose a gas tax increase objected.

“I’m convinced the only way we’ll get a roads bill out is to start taking some votes,” he said. “My greatest frustration is we’ve failed to take a single vote on a roads bill.”

Leatherman said the issue of fixing South Carolina’s roads is so big that he never expected a bill to pass this year. When the regular session resumes in January, the bill will be on special debate status in the Senate.

Also Tuesday, the Senate passed a continuing resolution that would keep state government running at current levels if the fiscal year starts without a budget. The Senate returned it to the House after amending it to expire July 24. That gives the Legislature more than five weeks to get a budget in place.

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