COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s Republican leaders made no major changes on Wednesday to their main House committees, and the group that handles the budget remains stuck with the same problems, only this time they’re looking at steep cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican Rep. Murrell Smith of Sumter was reelected chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, two years after House Speaker Jay Lucas wielded his power to make committee assignments for all members and kicked Rep. Brian White off the powerful panel he led for eight years.
Smith told his committee that they will have to immediately deal with the budget, as economists can’t guarantee that tax and other revenue estimates slashed by the COVID-19 economic downturn will be enough to avoid budget cuts before this spending plan ends in June.
And for the fourth year, Smith said, the House needs to deal with Santee Cooper. This time leaders in the House and Senate are angry at the state-owned utility for signing off on bonds without their permission as lawmakers continue to debate whether to sell Santee Cooper to a private firm or keep state ownership and reform the utility.
Santee Cooper apologized in company statements, saying slighting lawmakers wasn’t their intention. With interest rates low, the bonds were an excellent way to pay less on their debts, the utility said.
“This cannot continue,” Smith said. “This is about the fourth kick of the mule we’ve had as a General Assembly.”
Lucas has repeatedly accused the utility of lying, and said he would fire the entire Santee Cooper board and all senior managers if he could.
“However, I do predict and will applaud your ultimate removal from your positions in the appropriate manner,” Lucas wrote in an April letter.
The one big change in committees Wednesday was forced by a departure: House Judiciary member Chris Murphy, a Republican from North Charleston, took over as chairman, replacing Peter McCoy, who resigned from the House after being named U.S. Attorney for South Carolina last year.
Murphy predicted a busy year as his committee gets the first crack at drawing new state House and Senate and U.S. House districts after the 2020 Census. He also plans to usher along criminal justice reform bills, which Lucas said are a priority.
Lucas handed out committee assignments as representatives met briefly on the House floor Wednesday, marking the end of the two-day organizational session. They won’t meet again until the 124th session starts on Jan. 12.
The Speaker said he stresses out about the job of matching assignments to the members’ talents and wishes so the House can do its best work, but it is impossible with 124 members.
Lucas said adaptability is also important. He remembered how he was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee early in his legislative career.
“Despite the fact I never hunted, fished or farmed in my life, I learned more from that committee,” Lucas said.
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