The Buzz on SC Politics

Joseph Bustos
·12 min read

Welcome to your weekly South Carolina politics briefing, a newsletter curated by The State’s politics and government team.

You remember this time last year? About this moment, South Carolina’s first few COVID-19 cases started to pop up.

Now, a year later, more than 1 million South Carolinians have been received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and many more million are set to get theirs.

Have you taken your shot to get your shot? You and 2.7 million other South Carolinians might be eligible as of Monday.

Gov. McMaster and the health department widened who can get the COVID-19 vaccine as the state gets more doses.

Are you 55 or older? A teacher or work at a prison or jail? An essential worker in close proximity of others?

You’re in, but prepare for an overload of people trying to make appointments on Monday. Patience might be key here.

The announcement this week comes after teachers and the state’s education superintendent Molly Spearman asked state leaders to make teachers a priority as the governor has used his bully pulpit to push teachers to get back in the classroom, five days a week.

But the governor suggested there should be enough doses for every one.

A step back: Last week, lawmakers were told that by adding teachers to the priority list would then in turn mean South Carolina’s seniors will not be able to get their doses. Now, that list is much wider, with many questioning what is different now from last week.

Are you in phase 1B? Let us know Monday whether you were able to get your vaccine appointment at thebuzz@thestate.com.

ICYMI: Did you go out for a drink past 11 p.m. this week? Who’s grabbing a drink late tonight.

On Monday, McMaster lifted his last call order letting restaurants serve booze past 11 p.m. The rule was put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants pushed for the order to be lifted saying the early last call pushed the drinking crowd to go out to bars earlier in the evening packing them in with those out for dinner.

Now with the expanded vaccine eligibility, before you go to the bar for a shot, you may have an opportunity for a shot (in the arm).

Earmarks, plans and a magistrate judge position?

In 2019, The State first documented the legislative-run practice of passing earmarks through the state budget.

Earmarks are basically budget items slipped into the budget every year that are at a lawmaker’s request, oftentimes going to fund nonprofit work, parks and, in some cases, relatives’ work. Leaders use earmarks to often time get their members on board so that they can pass a budget without a lot of pushback.

But, a months long investigation by The State and Island Packet newspapers found that lawmakers have stashed millions in the state budget for pet project they have close ties to. In the case of the House Minority Leader, Rep. Todd Rutherford sent $570,000 to organizations tied to his now-wife, her mother and his ex wife’s business partners. On the other side of the political aisle is state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, who sent $325,000 to a group founded by his family and run by his friend and political consultant.

Both members sit on the powerful House Ways and Means committee, writes each year’s state budget.

Despite claims of transparency, and a House rule that says lawmakers must submit written funding requests, the two lawmakers’ names only appeared on an obscure agency document that tracked contract payouts.

The State filed more than 60 public record requests to gather information on earmarks over the last year and is still unable to track the all lawmakers who made requests. In several instances, the House, which ordered the payments, and the agency cutting the checks couldn’t say who requested the money, how it was spent or what it was intended for.

A step back: State House leaders on both political aisles have not all been on the same page about whether to get rid of the controversial practice, even after media reports expose problems that arise with the oversight of the spending. The Senate finally passed a rule this year to ensure earmarks are public, a measure the House has had for years. But getting rid of it entirely is unlikely.

Our investigative team also looked into Rutherford’s use of a state plane to fly to conferences at luxury resorts with his then-girlfriend, while taxpayers picked up the tab for their flights. Once there, Rutherford sometimes spent his campaign donations to cover expenses, even though organizers provided food and lodging. Rutherford says there is nothing illegal or unethical with his actions, though ethicists disputed the House minority leader’s interpretation of the law. Some also took issue with his behind-the-scene efforts to help his now-wife be nominated as a magistrate judge.

At the end of this week’s Ways and Means meeting, lawmakers poked fun at Rutherford and Finlay.

“You think there’s any chance Todd can get a new plane?” Finlay asked.

“It will be a single seater,” Rutherford added.

Laughter ensued.

Ways and Means Chairman Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith added to the levity.

“Maybe we could fund it through your nonprofit,” Smith said.

USC board race ends without drama

University board races are typically not super interesting, especially when someone goes unchallenged.

But the University of South Carolina board race between incumbent Alex English and Robert Dozier caught more attention.

NBA legend and USC alumnus English, who is Black, faced Dozier, a white Columbia businessman with ties to lawmakers.

English was already on the board, courtesy of governor to serve out an unexpired term.

In the end, Dozier dropped out a day before the race and English was elected by the Legislature 112-10.

A step back: The Dozier strategy is all kinds of confusing, with even state lawmakers telling reporters this week they didn’t understand why Rep. Finlay pushed Dozier so hard to win the race against English, a guy with high name ID and who was appointed by the governor. There’s also the backdrop of the race factor, which lawmakers were concerned about going into the election. But it was only intensified after a Columbia political blog wrote a series of stories about English’s backing to rename the Strom building.

Open carry is back

The House is set to pass an open carry gun bill proposal this month after it flew through committee.

The measure has overwhelming backing from Republicans, who dominate the House chamber.

No one’s questioning whether it’ll pass, but the debate will be one to watch whether Republicans can hold off one of their own colleagues from tacking on an amendment that would allow the open carry of guns without a permit. Most Republicans back that sort of measure, but are aware that kind of loose regulation will face a much tougher battle in the Senate, a chamber that has been unwilling to go that far.

A step back: The bill is very likely to pass the House in two weeks. The question is about the Senate. The Senate Judiciary chairman Luke Rankin told The State recently that he could see the bill getting a debate next year, not this one. Sure, it’s March but legislative work technically ends in early May and they still need to attempt to pass a budget. Then there’s redistricting.

Coming this weekend: Gun bills have met challenges in the Senate but even opponents say this session could be the one where an open carry bill finally makes it to the governor’s desk.

Reviving the death penalty

The Senate this week passed a controversial bill that would bring back the electric chair with a firing squad option.

Remember, South Carolina hasn’t been able to carry out executions for a while because of a lack of lethal injection chemicals, an issue that stems mostly from companies unwilling to face public scrutiny.

But, let’s focus on firing squads where much of the debate happened around.

Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootilian and Republican Senate Education chairman Greg Hembree said a firing squad is a more humane way to put someone to death, as opposed to the electric chair. Both are former solicitors and have tried death penalty cases.

You may have read senators added the firing squad provision via a voice vote. And if you don’t follow the day-to-day mechanisms of the legislative process, all that means is senators agreed to the provision without taking a roll call vote, where lawmakers say either “Aye” or “No.” A roll call vote can take place on bill amendments, if enough senators make the request.

Buzz Bites

President Joe Biden reflects on South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary a year later.

M. Rhett DeHart has been named the acting U.S. attorney for South Carolina after Peter McCoy stepped down.

Could South Carolina’s federal Judge Michelle Childs be the next Supreme Court justice? House Majority Whip Jim Cylburn is reportedly pushing President Biden to name the University of South Carolina Law School graduate when an opening occurs.

Clyburn is making another push to eliminate the Charleston loophole and may have a path because Democrats control both the US House and Senate, as well as the White House.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott was endorsed in his 2022 re-election effort by President Donald Trump.

A bill that would ban transgender girls from women’s sports took its first steps in the House despite opposition from State Superintendent Molly Spearman.

The Citadel still has a Confederate flag hanging in a chapel on its Charleston campus, but Harpootlian wants it removed.

Lawmakers and state officials are reviewing the state’s electric grid to make sure South Carolina doesn’t experience a massive failure likes of one in Texas.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin won a contentious reelection campaign during last year’s Republican primary, but that clash has been renewed in the court system after his former opponent filed a defamation suit.

Gov. McMaster voiced his opposition to what he called a new standard for allocating federal funds to states in the coronavirus relief package passed Saturday by the U.S. House.

The House passed U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace’s first bill related to provide confidentiality in emails sent between inmates and their attorneys. We live in a digital world and our laws should reflect that. Our bill brings due process rights to the 21st century and I’m pleased to see it pass the House with overwhelming bipartisan support,” Mace said.

Teacher step increases for this school year received a thumbs up from the Senate. The bill goes back to the House because a minor change was made.

Columbia’s Waverly Historic District and Harden Street Substation, St. George Rosenwald School in Dorchester County and the South Carolina Equalization Schools website, have been added to the African American Civil Rights Network.

The FBI says a South Carolina man posed as Antifa during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson filed a resolution that would ask South Carolina voters whether they support raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Mark your calendar

Friday

Road Dedication Ceremony on Pineview Road (between Shop Road and Garners Ferry Road) to honor former state Rep. Jimmy C. Bales, 1 p.m.

March 8

House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee hearing on state Department of Health and Human Services, 2 p.m.

March 11

House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee hearing on state Department of Commerce, an hour after House adjourns

March 17

The Senate’s Families and Veterans’ Services Committee will revisit the state flag design

March 22-25

Budget week in the S.C. House

April 22

Budget week in the S.C. Senate

Before we adjourn

I usually don’t like to pat myself on the back too much, but like to give kudos to my colleagues. The annual SC Press Association awards were announced this week and journalists receive accolades for the work they did.

Among the awards for The State newspaper won was best election and political coverage last year in the daily publication category. Not bad for a year with the Democratic presidential primary election and an expensive U.S. Senate race. It was one of 30 awards The State won.

I know it may be cliche to say this, but winning awards is not our primary objective. We try to focus on serving readers, helping them understand what’s happening in state and federal government and how it affects their lives. We also seek to take readers places they normally can’t go. And most importantly we’re working to hold elected officials accountable. That’s why we do this. If we do these things well, the awards take care of themselves.

Who pulled together this week’s newsletter?

This week is was reporter Joseph Bustos, a politics and state government reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeBReporter or send him an email at jbustos@thestate.

As a side note, he congratulates his colleague Maayan Schechter for winning ‘Best use individual use of social media’ in the SCPA contest. Joe hopes next year judges recognize his ongoing meeting background Twitter thread.

Make sure to sign up for our weekly politics newsletter that will come straight to your inbox each week. Tell your friends to do the same. For even more South Carolina-focused political news, you can chat with us on Facebook at the Buzz on South Carolina Politics, email us tips at thebuzz [at] thestate [dot] com and follow our stories at scpolitics.com.