Well, it's begun.
The Legislature convenes next Tuesday, and in anticipation of that, House Speaker Bobby Harrell came by to see us yesterday afternoon.
On his mind were the following:
- Number one, the economy. Emphasizing the state's alarming unemployment rate, he said he recently met with Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor to express the speaker's willingness to provide him with whatever tools he needs. After I brought up his past criticism of the agency, Mr. Harrell insisted that we not report him as being critical of Commerce now. The closest he came to anything disparaging was the observation that Commerce had been "scoring points, not winning the game" lately. Other than that, he was Mr. Supportive.
- Employment Security Commission. You may recall that before Christmas, Mr. Harrell said, "It is inconceivable that Governor Sanford hasn’t already made this
request of the federal government, and it would be tragic if he allows
jobless benefits to run out, particularly at this time of year." Now he was at pains to point out that he believes the agency should supply the info the gov wants, and he said he'll sign a letter next week calling for an audit. This is not inconsistent; it's not far from our position — yes, the agency should provide such info readily, no, the governor shouldn't play "chicken" with unemployment benefits.
- Cigarette tax. As one who once opposed the increase outright, Mr. Harrell now counts himself among those reconciled to its inevitability. The sticking point, as always, is what it should be spent on. (As you now, our position is that whatever you spend it on, it should be passed, because it undoubtedly will reduce teen smoking.) He noted that he supported the governor's veto last year on that score. He would like to see the money (and the federal Medicaid match) spent on making health insurance more available to small businesses. He said Oklahoma has recently shown a way to do that — it would require a waiver from the feds.
- Education funding formula. My notes were sketchy here, but he was talking about revamping the whole funding system. I'll check with Cindi later to remind me what he said about this; in the meantime consider this a placeholder — I mention it only so that you know it was one of the things that was on his mind. All my notes say is "Education formula… The whole pot… They've been melting… a lot." And I confess that makes little sense to me, much less to you.
- Roads. He wants more money for road maintenance, but he does not want to raise the gasoline tax, which is how we fund roads in SC. He would instead devote car sales taxes — what little we get in sales tax, given the $300 cap — to roads. He did not specify what he would NOT fund from the general fund to do that.
- Restructuring. He promised to push for a Dept. of Administration.
- Tax reform. He said a BRAC-style tax reform commission would be a good idea, but he offered two amendments to what biz leaders have advocated. Rather than have no legislators on the commission, he would have about a fourth of the panel be lawmakers. His reasoning is that lawmakers could school other members as to the feasibility of the ideas (which sounds suspiciously like a way to keep out good ideas the Legislature doesn't like, but maybe that's just me and my suspicious nature). He also said that rather than making it impossible for lawmakers to amend the plan, he would allow for amendment with a big supermajority — say 75 percent. His stated reasoning on that is to prevent some minor technical flaw from sinking the whole plan. He believes the supermajority requirement would eliminate the danger of narrow interests killing the overall plan. One more point on tax reform: He thinks it should be done in two stages — deal with the host of sales tax exemptions first, then the rest of the tax structure.
Those are the main topics he brought up. In answer to questions, he said:
- A payday lending bill — one to more tightly regulate the industry, but not out of existence — will likely come out of the session.
- He likes the governor's idea of eliminating the corporate income tax — an idea he traces to Ronald Reagan (at which point all Republicans murmur "Peace Be Upon Him" or something equally reverential). But he doesn't like the idea of eliminating economic incentives.
- In response to our noting that the governor seems to want to step up his voucher efforts, the Speaker said he's supportive, but doesn't think it will pass.
- Roll call voting. He defended his rules change to increase transparency, which he believes addresses the "key concerns" — such as spending legislation, the budget overall, anything affecting lawmakers' pay or benefits, ethics or campaign finance and the like. He totally dismissed the idea that his handling of Nikki Haley and Nathan Ballentine was out of line, or anything personal. As for his not telling Nikki in person he was kicking her off the committee, such has "always been done by sending a letter."
- Cindi was just starting to ask about the one thing liable to occupy most of the House's energy this year — passing a budget in light of plummeting revenues — when the Speaker said he had to leave for another interview for which he was already late (Keven Cohen's show). Rest assured Cindi will follow up. (If I'd realized how short on time we were, I would have insisted we start on that overriding topic earlier.)
One more thing worthy of note: This was the first time Mr. Harrell asked to come in for a pre-session board meeting. Predecessor David Wilkins did it as a more or less annual ritual, bringing his committee chairs (including Mr. Harrell) along with him.