Abortion a surprise focus of the South Carolina Legislature
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina General Assembly opened its 2023 legislative session Tuesday with a surprising priority: abortion.
Many lawmakers thought the issue was just about settled during a bruising special session last year that strained Republicans before failing to change the 2021 state law banning abortions when cardiac activity is detected at about six weeks after conception.
But five days before the General Assembly returned, the state Supreme Court ruled the current law unconstitutional because it violates a right to privacy in the state constitution. That made a law allowing abortions up to five months after conception the new rule.
The ruling may have drastically changed a session where many lawmakers have said they wanted to spend significant time on education, business and possibly a few social issues.
Not only will there probably be another long abortion debate, but the ruling opened other unexpected doors, including whether the state should continue to have lawmakers elect and vet potential judges.
“The opinion just came out Thursday, so I think we need to evaluate our options. I think it does put some more emphasis on the selection of our next justice of the Supreme Court,” Republican House Speaker Murrell Smith said.
Smith said he wants to push a “people not policy” agenda that includes emphasizing parental involvement in education, raising pay for teachers, law enforcement and perhaps other state employees, and rethinking investments, especially with companies that concern themselves with environmental and social causes.
Leaders in both parties emphasized they don’t want abortion to dominate the session.
One of the first issues the Senate will tackle next week is vouchers. A bill creating an education savings account program where parents could get taxpayer money to send their children to a private school or program could be considered on the Senate floor as soon as next week. A similar bill nearly passed the Legislature last year but lawmakers couldn't reach a final agreement before the session ended.
Democrats said they will watch carefully to make sure any money spent is tracked to see if it improves student performance.
“If we’re going to spend money on something impactful, it needs to be education," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, who said money might be better spent on things like wireless internet access on school buses so rural students who spend hours going to and from school can use the time on homework or studying.
Another issue likely to be taken up this month is fentanyl abuse. The first bill introduced in the Senate this year would create a new crime called fentanyl-induced homicide with a punishment of up to 30 years in prison and stiff sentences for illegally having the drug.
“We’ve got to push that across the finish line. There are too many people dying," Sen. Majority Leader Shane Massey said.
South Carolina currently has a surplus of $3.8 billion, which is a combination of taxes from a booming population, money not spent as lawmakers continue to fear a recession and lawsuit settlements.
There is expected to be discussions in the legislature on raises or bonuses for teachers, law enforcement and other state employees. And while lawmakers might discuss another rebate to send money back to taxpayers, don't look for changes to the six-year process of changing the state's top income tax rate from 7% to 6%, Republican House Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister said.
“I don’t see us accelerating the tax cuts today based on the uncertainty of the future," Bannister said,
The federal courts threw another curveball Friday, ruling that the coastal 1st Congressional District was illegally drawn to benefit Republicans by sending Black voters in Charleston County into a district that extends to Columbia. But Republican leaders don't expect to start drawing a new map yet.
“We don’t need to draw anything until five members of the (U.S.) Supreme Court say we have to," Massey said.
Much of the first few weeks of the session will be spent with committee work. More than 800 bills were filed before Tuesday. This is the first year of a two-year session, so all legislation must start from scratch, with those bills and their supporters jockeying to get them attention.
The General Assembly typically meets Tuesday through Thursday through May 11.