Legislative Watch

Two things are not pretty to watch being made: sausage and legislation.

So goes a saying among political hacks. The halfway point of the legislative session seems a good time to track significant bills. We're watching
the sausage being made so you don't have to.

Law Abiding Citizens' Self-Defense Act
The bill that would allow most South Carolinians to carry a concealed weapon has broad bipartisan support.
Some unlikely supporters of the bill include representatives Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg), Jerry Govans (D-Orangeburg) and Alex Harvin (D-Clarendon).
Cobb-Hunter renounced her sponsorship, claiming to have been misled that the intent of the bill was to require training and registration for gun owners. The bill does that, but allows anyone who passes a police check, pays the $50 fee and takes a pistol handling course to carry the weapon concealed.
Govans said, "I had a change of heart once I understood the details of the bill. It plays on and takes advantage of people's worst fears of violence. It sounded good, came on fast and I didn't do a good job of looking into all the ramifications."
Harvin said, "Well, you caught me red-handed," when questioned about his support of the bill. Harvin, who doesn't keep a gun and "doesn't like them," says he supported the bill as a favor to Jeff Young (R-Sumter), the bill's sponsor.
The bill that passed the House would allow guns to be toted anywhere but in law enforcement facilities and court houses, polling places, churches, schools, places that sell alcohol and, of course, the state legislature.
The bill picked up some amendments in the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, but has been reported out to the full committee. Republicans on the Senate subcommittee decided that college students should be able to carry guns on campus but not in the buildings. It is unclear where the students are supposed to stash their guns during class.
Sen. Jim Bryan (D-Laurens) lost the fight for businesses to be able to prohibit concealed weapons by posting "no guns allowed" signs. The committee also vetoed a Democratic proposal to allow sheriffs to block permits to those with a history of mental illness or violence.
The most significant Senate change to the House version of the bill was to specify eight hours of actual firing exercises a condition of licensing.
Training would be provided by "an instructor certified by the National Rifle Association, or another competent national organization that promotes gun safety." The NRA is currently lobbying to overturn the law that bans citizens from carrying assault weapons.
Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston) attached a 39-page minority report to the subcommittee's favorable ruling on the bill, guaranteeing a contested status that will delay passage. Opponents of the bill are hoping it will not make it out of the Senate.

Private Property Protection Act
Last year a slew of "takings bills," also known as "bad neighbor bills," were introduced in state legislatures across the country. These bills were the bad seed of the "wise use" movement, the right-wing answer to environmentalism.
The bills were written by industry-funded groups, the most prominent of which is the D.C.-based think tank American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC warns that "the greatest threat to American prosperity today," is from "leftist environmental proposals."
Takings bills have one feature in common: that government pay property owners to refrain from polluting. Environmental regulations, says ALEC, "inevitably result in the confiscation of private land values without any form of compensation."
These "property rightists" view zoning ordinances and environmental laws as an infringement of property rights, while community groups see those same ordinances as "saving the neighborhood" from polluters.
Once a takings bill is passed, local governments find it easier to eliminate zoning rather than spend taxpayers' money fighting takings lawsuits. Residents become powerless to stop large manufacturers from locating in their neighborhoods. The legislation also greatly affects protections that environmental regulatory agencies have developed over the years.
Bearers of the wise use torch in South Carolina include the Farm Bureau, the Forestry Association, the Poultry Federation, the home builders and realtors associations and the Tourism Council. These groups supported the bill introduced last session by Rep. James Harrison (R-Richland). Municipal and county governments and preservation groups were opposed.
The legislation was drafted by local attorney Gerald Finkel, who wrote a similar bill that passed in Texas with the support of oil interests.
The South Carolina bill has been in the House judiciary committee since last year, but Harrison seems determined to get something passed.
Sen. Phil Leventis (D-Sumter) admonished, "I think we need to be sure that it doesn't wind up on the budget bill somehow. That's a House tactic now, to logroll [bills] through the legislature on some other popular issue, like tax breaks."

Right to Farm Bill
Originally drafted and pushed by the poultry industry, the Right to Farm Bill, or the Hog Bill, was written to gut local zoning ordinances, enabling corporate poultry and hog farms to locate virtually anywhere.
Tom Perlic, director of the Sierra Club, described the original bill as minus 20 on a scale of 100.
A high-profile accident in North Carolina, in which millions of gallons of hog waste were released into a river, raised awareness of the potentially catastrophic effects of hog waste.
Sen. Leventis and Nancy Vinson, of the Coastal Conservation League, began working on changes to the bill last year. "Nothing that I have ever done in the legislature has consumed as much time as this," Leventis said, "because it's an important issue."
The current bill, a work in progress, recognizes that hog farms will be a part of South Carolina's future but tries to control the most egregious effects of corporate hog farms. Nobody knows what the final version of the bill will look like, but important concessions have already been achieved.
Vinson said the distance of hog farms to neighbors and surface waters are the most critical part of the bill. The bill also regulates the construction and size of waste lagoons while exempting local farmers from complying with the new regulations.
True to form, DHEC found Leventis' amendments "too restrictive" on corporate hog farmers. DHEC recommended that lagoons containing millions of gallons of hog waste be allowed to locate 100 to 200 feet rather than a quarter- to a half-mile from surface waters or critical habitat waters for endangered species.
The current bill has received the support of 11 chambers of commerce and the Sierra Club. Perlic said that establishing an inspection fund, monitoring well requirements and retention of local authority over farms are positive features.
The bill's weakness is the exemption of the poultry industry from the same standards. "We'd like to see factory poultry operators improve in the Rock Hill Camden corridor," Perlic said. "The birds are fed arsenic to make them grow faster, and that ends up in the litter." Both hog and poultry waste are then applied as fertilizer.
Considering that an industrial poultry operation with 16,000 turkeys generates 480 tons of unregulated waste each year, the equivalent of a town with 8,000 people, a significant amount of arsenic is being put directly on the ground.
"The poultry industry is on the verge of getting a complete break in South Carolina," said Bob Guild, an environmental lawyer representing a community fighting poultry farms. "There's a fast race between the hog and poultry industries to use a limited amount of land for waste disposal. You may effectively regulate the hog industry and distract attention from the poultry industry. And that's exactly what we're seeing. Poultry farms are moving in very quickly."
Guild pointed to Arkansas' water pollution caused by the poultry industry as an example of what will happen in South Carolina if the industry is not regulated. Leventis and Vinson said that the exclusion of poultry was a legitimate concern but said political realities dictated against regulating poultry.
"Politics is the art of the doable," Leventis said. "I don't see a strong will in the legislature to regulate chickens right now."

Term Limits
The joint resolution on term limits that has come out of the Senate Judiciary Committee would restrict elected officials and most judges to serving no more than 12 years in office.
The Senate bill, originally titled the "Voters' Right Resolution" by sponsor Sen. Don Holland (D-Kershaw), covers so much ground that no one expects it to pass in its current form. The bill, which would require a constitutional amendment approved by the voting public, shortens the legislative session by a month and also allows citizens to petition to place issues on the ballot.
The proposed "citizens' initiative" would require the support of 10 percent of the state's registered voters before being considered in a general election. The Senate version would prevent citizens from amending the constitution, and allow the legislature and governor to override winning initiatives.
Sen. Joe Wilson (R-Lexington) argued with committee Democrats that it was an insult to citizens to give them the right to place issues on the ballot and then retain the right to ignore their decision.
The major difference between the Senate and House versions of term limits is when they take effect and who they affect. The Senate version includes judges and would boot people from office as early as 1998; the House version allows 12 years of service in each body, doesn't include judges and doesn't take effect until 2006.
"Term limits may make the public feel a little bit better, but really don't affect the way the game works, said John Crangle, director of the political watchdog group Common Cause. "Term limits are a snake oil solution for a real problem. Campaign finance reform is what's needed."
Sen. Ford has placed objections on the bill, and debate is expected in mid to late April. This is late enough in the session where nothing may pass but legislators can take credit for trying.

All-Day Kindergarten
The House version of this bill, sponsored by Ralph Anderson (D-Greenville), proposes that kindergarten, which lasts the length of a regular elementary school day, be available to all five-year-olds.
Conservative Republicans have objected to the bill, claiming that it interferes with their notion of how families should be raised.
The House bill hasn't made it out of committee, and recently narrowly failed being attached to the House budget.
Anderson, whose district includes low-income housing projects in Greenville, noted that the School Accountability Act has given the kindergarten bill a boost. "How can you hold teachers accountable when kids have different opportunities?" Anderson asked. "A kid coming out of the projects doesn't have the same opportunities as a middle-class kid without state-supported kindergarten."
A Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Nikki Setzler (D-Lexington) has been reported out of the Senate Education Committee but has been placed on the contested calendar by Sen. Mike Fair (R-Greenville).
The Senate version addresses fundamentalists' concerns by making kindergarten optional. Parents can choose to keep their kids out, send them for half a day or a full day. Proponents of the $55 million program argue that the investment in early childhood education is as important as the economic and development incentives the legislature keeps giving to big business.
If there is a full-day kindergarten program next year, it will be because the Senate puts it into its budget and the House is shamed into supporting it.

Environmental Audit and Disclosure Immunity Act
This is that special gift-wrapped present polluters have always wanted: to designate evidence of wrongdoing as privileged information inadmissible in court.
In civil suits, a plaintiff may use a defendant's own documents to show negligent behavior. This process is referred to as "discovery" and has a long history in jurisprudence.
In a case which recently concluded in Columbia, for example, Joyce Martin obtained civil damages from Diamant Boart partly because the company's own audit reports said Diamant Boart was aware of serious environmental problems at its plant yet for years did nothing to correct them.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Verne Smith (D-Greenville) declares that an environmental audit report is "privileged and immune from discovery and is not admissible as evidence in a legal action including a civil, criminal or administrative proceeding."
The bill also offers immunity from administrative or civil penalties for companies that voluntarily disclose violations of state or federal environmental laws.
Even the listless EPA Region 4 office did not let this bill go unnoticed (unlike DHEC). In February the EPA wrote to the Labor Commerce and Industry Committee regarding the audit bill, stressing the following points:
EPA opposes the creation and adoption of new environmental evidentiary privileges. The issues associated with the privileges and subsequent litigation create serious resource drains on government and private litigators.
The legislation does not require the violator to take any steps necessary to prevent recurrence of the violation.
Violations involving significant economic benefits [create] the opportunity for certain companies to enjoy an unfair economic advantage over their complying competitors.
The legislation contains vague terms that may give rise to resource-consuming disputes over the application of the provisions.
The EPA Region 4 office has not heard from the sponsors of the bill nor from anyone in the LCI committee regarding its letter.
Industry including Georgia Pacific, DuPont, Aceman Chemical, Safety Kleen, International Paper and the textile manufacturers has put its muscle behind this bill.
If the current version of this bill passes, residents living downstream from polluters will find it nearly impossible to obtain evidence of negligence and, therefore, to collect damages.
As environmental lawyer Bob Guild put it, "Good companies don't need immunity from prosecution for environmental offenses, and bad companies don't deserve it. This legislation would reward bad actors and encourage good companies to hide things. Fundamentally, this bill is an admission of failure."

Judicial Reform
The House bill to establish a Judicial Merit Selection Commission has passed the House, and a much tougher version is slated for the floor of the Senate. The bill would establish a commission appointed by the legislature and governor to screen and nominate judicial candidates to be elected by the legislature.
Currently, the legislature chooses judges, often from its own ranks, without due concern for candidates' qualifications. The Senate version of the bill would prohibit a legislator from seeking a judgeship for a year after leaving office. The House version says that a legislator must resign office to declare as a judicial candidate.
Since judges are currently elected by one vote from each of the members of the House and Senate, the House has always had the numerical advantage. House members have often openly engaged in "vote swapping" to get their favorite candidate elected. The Senate version of the bill provides for a year in jail for swapping votes, as well as a year in jail for a sitting legislator who lines up votes before resigning.
Sen. Ford was one of two senators who opposed the basic notion of a merit selection commission, noting that the reform would do nothing to keep the bench from being stacked with white men. He called for public election of judges, and said that vote swapping was part of the system.
Look for a bill to pass this session that establishes a merit selection commission and a requirement that legislators be out of office for six months before running for the robes.

Reproductive Rights
The fight over a woman's right to control her own body is currently focused on regulations that DHEC must write to satisfy legislation that was passed last year.
DHEC submitted regulations last month to the House Judiciary committee which the committee found lacking and returned to DHEC for revisions.
Anti-choice forces are urging DHEC and the legislature to use the regulations to force clinics that perform abortions to meet hospital surgery standards, which would limit the number of clinics and doctor's offices that could perform outpatient abortions.
The Judiciary committee returned the regulations to DHEC, not out of sympathy for abortion rights but out of a concern that DHEC was using the regulations to write new legislation. Among the committee's concerns were regulations that compelled clinics to turn over records to DHEC that provide the names of women who have had abortions, as well as the name of the fathers.
In order to get the regulations adopted this year, DHEC must send the revised regulations back to the Judiciary committee by May 23.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 4/6/96