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South Carolina News

SC House OKs Bill Tweaking Governor's Emergency Powers

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina House gave key approval Thursday to a bill that would make sure lawmakers have a chance to change or end a prolonged state of emergency issued by the governor.

By a 109-3 vote, the House adopted the proposal that streamlines their procedure to intervene and check the governor's powers. After one more routine vote, the bill will be sent to the Senate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed problems with South Carolina's laws allowing governors to declare emergencies, usually because of hurricanes or other weather disasters. It had not been changed in about 60 years except to add the words “public health emergency” in 2002.

Under current law, McMaster can issue an emergency declaration for only 15 days before the General Assembly has to weigh in. To avoid that, the Republican governor has issued declarations with incremental changes every two weeks or so. He issued the 24th such order Monday.

The bill passed Thursday would allow the General Assembly to weigh in within 30 days. They could end or continue a state of emergency with one vote of each chamber or alter it through a more lengthy process. If they don’t meet, the emergency declaration would last as long as the governor wishes.

One change on the House floor would require the General Assembly to meet in an emergency if at least 10 of the state's 46 legislative delegations voted to come back.

Rep. Jonathon Hill was one of three votes against, saying that giving the governor broad emergency powers violates civil liberties. The Townville Republican called McMaster “King Henry” several times as he spoke out against it.

The governor has said his goal wasn’t to avoid legislative oversight, but to keep the government operating in the pandemic emergency because he couldn’t wait for lawmakers to meet when they were trying to stay apart.

McMaster said in his State of the State address last month that he supported the bill.

The Senate appears to want to change the emergency powers law too. In May, as they finished up loose ends in a session where two months were lost to the pandemic, senators voted 17-16 to rebuke McMaster for not getting permission for lawmakers to keep issuing emergency decrees.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.