- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 8, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Lawmakers returned to the capital for the new session that began Tuesday promising to overhaul the state’s education system and choose how to spend an extra $1 billion in the state’s coffers.

Over the 18-week General Assembly session, House and Senate leaders plan to focus on improvements to the state’s K-12 and higher education systems. House Speaker Jay Lucas of Hartsville has yet to provide specifics; other Republican House leaders said bills will be introduced soon with details.

Republicans have begun to suggest the bigger challenge is deciding how to spend the available revenue, which surpassed what state economists had forecast due to improvements in the economy.

“I want to know exactly what we spend per child in South Carolina and what it costs to go to college in South Carolina,” says House Majority Leader Gary Simrill of Rock Hill, who chairs a budget subcommittee on higher education. “Tackling K-12 education needs to be done correctly, not quickly.”

Democrats have said lawmakers taking a wholesale look at education need to address growing poverty in rural areas and how school systems with poorer and minority students have always lagged behind.

“There is no magic wand,” Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, the longest-serving House member. “We are looking at 20-plus years of underfunding, and that does not change overnight.”

Gov. Henry McMaster also thinks education needs to be a top priority, his spokesman said.

The 123rd legislative session also began with new leaders for several key committees, including the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee. There are also new rules for the Senate, now that the lieutenant governor no longer presides over that chamber.

On Tuesday, the House met briefly for largely ceremonial duties before adjourning for caucus meetings.

The extra money will drive many legislative decisions, among them whether to give raises to teachers and other state employees, improve equipment for law enforcement or restructure the state’s income, property, and sales tax systems.

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes has said the governor wants to cut income taxes and stop taxing military retirement payments.

The lawmakers in both chambers - a total of 105 Republicans and 63 Democrats (with two vacancies) - may also decide what to do with state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which is saddled with around $9 billion in debt, about half of it from paying for nuclear reactors that were never finished. Much of last year’s session was devoted to how to satisfy ratepayers of South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., the project’s majority owner, who have already paid more than $2 billion toward the failed endeavor.

“I believe SCANA pales in comparison to the issues involved with Santee Cooper,” Democratic Senate Leader Nikki Setzler of West Columbia said. “I believe Santee Cooper is much bigger, much larger than the issues we dealt with SCANA and SCE&G.”

The Senate welcomed a new leader, creating a position of Senate President and voting Republican Harvey Peeler of Gaffney to it. The rules need to change because voters approved a constitutional amendment changing the lieutenant governor’s job to running as a ticket with the governor and no longer presiding over the Senate.

There was also a new senator. Dick Harpootlian won a special election in November for the final two years of the term of Republican John Courson, who resigned during a probe into corruption at the Statehouse. Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat, railed against corruption and the unwillingness of lawmakers to do what is right for the people.

But he said on Tuesday that two months of talking to his new colleagues has led him to see that there is hope for the General Assembly after all. The former head of the state Democratic Party also poked fun at his well-known habit of outrageous comments, pointing out he was reading his first floor speech from prepared notes.

“When I go off script, things can go awry,” Harpootlian said.


Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.


Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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