S.C. lawmakers wrapped up the 2019 legislative session Thursday with plans to come back later this month to deal with the budget and a handful of other issues.
In a year when the General Assembly’s two greatest priorities — fixing a failing education system and deciding what to do with the debt-saddled Santee Cooper utility — weren’t resolved, it’s fair to ask what actually was accomplished.
We’re here to help.
Legislators passed dozens of new laws, many of which are small technical changes that won’t affect everyday life in South Carolina one way or the other.
But others will have a significant impact. Here’s a rundown on some of the most notable bills that passed in 2019.
And a reminder: Since this was the first of a two-year session, any proposals that didn’t pass this year have a chance to become law when the General Assembly reconvenes next January.
The Carolina Panthers are moving to South Carolina – sort of
S.C. lawmakers agreed to provide $115 million in tax breaks to bring the Charlotte-based NFL team’s headquarters and practice facilities across the N.C. border to Rock Hill. House and Senate negotiators have a few minor details to iron over, but this bill is expected to become law when the General Assembly returns to Columbia on May 20. Barring unforeseen complications, The Panthers will make the move, but they will still play their home games in Charlotte.
Teachers are getting a pay raise
The General Assembly agreed to spend $159 million in next year’s budget to raise teacher starting pay to $35,000 – from $32,000 – and give each teacher at least a 4% pay raise. Lawmakers say this is the first step in raising S.C. teacher pay to the southeastern average within five years. This is an effort to attract and retain teachers who are currently fleeing the profession.
The state will field offers for Santee Cooper
Lawmakers will punt the decision on whether to sell Santee Cooper until at least later this year. But they recently agreed to request offers from outside companies interested in either purchasing or managing the debt-saddled, state-owned utility. Any decision will affect power bills of two million South Carolinians, who currently are on the hook to pay thousands of dollars over the next four decades for Santee Cooper’s failed nuclear power plant construction project.
Tuition hikes will be smaller at SC public colleges
For the first time in years, S.C. lawmakers are ponying up millions to try to freeze tuition hikes for in-state students. They have proposed spending more than $40 million more a year to keep tuition low and more than $110 million this year this to pay for college construction, maintenance and renovation projects that would otherwise contribute to tuition hikes. Details of that spending still must be worked out by House and Senate negotiators later this month.
Solar energy can expand
This month, lawmakers finished a years-long debate on how and whether to expand solar energy. The bill lifts the caps on how many S.C. homes can have rooftop solar panels and allows 10-year contracts for solar farms that can deliver electricity cheaper than traditional utilities.
Uber and Lyft drivers get new rules
State lawmakers have searched for ways to make Uber and Lyft rides safer since University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson was killed after she climbed into an unmarked car she thought was her Uber home from Five Points. They settled on requiring Uber and Lyft drivers to display their license plate numbers somewhere on the front of their vehicles — where riders can easily see them and make sure they are getting into the right car. Drivers can buy vinyl stickers or make the signs themselves.
As part of this proposal, legislators also made it a crime to impersonate an Uber or Lyft driver.
Electric cooperatives get state oversight, transparency
A board pay scandal at Tri-County Electric Cooperative — revealed by The State last summer — led lawmakers to pass stricter laws governing the state’s 20 electric co-ops. For decades, the small power distributors have enjoyed little scrutiny from their customer-owners or the government, and the board pay for S.C. co-ops is double the national average. Now, the state’s utility watchdog, the Office of Regulatory Staff, will be empowered to investigate the co-ops, and customers will have more access to their financial records.
Eliminating child marriage loophole
Nearly 7,000 underage girls have married older men over the past 20 years in South Carolina, many of them to avoid the embarrassment of having a child out of wedlock. But lawmakers this year repealed a 1962 law that allowed those underage marriages, which studies have shown can be financially, emotionally and physically harmful to the child brides.
College fraternity and sorority infractions will remain public
The Tucker Hipps Transparency Act, a 2016 law that required S.C. public colleges to list fraternity and sorority conduct violations online, was set to expire this summer. This year, after learning that students and parents were, in fact, using the list to assess whether to join Greek organizations, lawmakers decided to extend the law permanently. The law was named after Tucker Hipps, a Clemson University student who mysteriously died sometime during or after a predawn run with other fraternity members in 2014.