- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The last time South Carolina lawmakers met in Columbia, the House’s 46 Democrats were joining with about that many Republicans to pull down the Confederate flag that flew at the Statehouse for 50 years.

If lawmakers could come together after what police said was the racially motivated killing of nine black people at a Charleston church, can they also unite on less emotionally charged issues like paying for roads, improving education and fixing flood damage?

The simple answer would be no. Democrats and Republicans spoke to reporters Thursday at a briefing before the session starts next week, and several GOP lawmakers sat silent for five seconds when asked if they could see greater unity in the Legislature this year.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford also threw some jabs, opening his response to Republicans’ legislative agenda by saying “the agenda of the rich people … I mean Republicans.”

There will be plenty to fight over. The state budget has hundreds of millions of dollars that isn’t dedicated to any expense yet. Republicans pointed out Thursday there have already been requests from state agencies to spend nearly three times that.

State budgeters “dropped about $1.3 billion in the trough and yelled ‘Sooie!’” said state Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.

Republicans want tax relief, while Democrats want more stable ways to raise money to pay for infrastructure. Democrats want to expand health care through the law supported by President Barack Obama, while Republicans want to find private solutions to the problem. There are also issues that don’t involve money. Democrats want to give local governments the chance to change monuments, including Civil War memorials. Republicans starting with House Speaker Jay Lucas said that won’t happen this year.

But there remains hope that lawmakers can come together about some things. Legislators go back to the Confederate flag debate. At the start of 2015, it didn’t stand a chance. But the issue was galvanized by the June shooting of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed with eight others at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston where he was pastor. Police said the gunman was a racist who targeted the church and its black members.

The killing changed Sen. Tom Davis’ mind on the flag, saying it was time for it to go. And the Republican from Beaufort said it also brought senators closer through their stunned grief.

Lucas points out the House passed a roads bill and ethics reform in 2015, and the Legislature combined to pass a body camera bill after a videotaped police shooting stunned the nation and led to a murder charge against a police officer.

“All those bills passed with huge majorities. I think that is consensus. Our results speak to the fact that everybody thinks they have a seat at the table,” said Lucas, R-Hartsville.

It’s much easier for Republicans to preach unity, because in the end, they have large majorities. Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said her heart was warmed by the agreement on the Confederate flag but “spinally challenged” lawmakers won’t take risks during an election year.

“We don’t really do anything that is going to make anybody halfway mad at us,” Cobb-Hunter said.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins

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