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New members, governor, rules could spark progress in General Assembly

Government
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At least some Midlands members of the S.C. House of Representatives are hopeful that changes in the state’s leadership coupled with some pending rules changes in the S.C.  Senate could lead to moving forward on issues like fixing the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

State Reps. Nate Ballentine, Chip Huggins, and James Smith, presented their views on the upcoming session of the S.C. General Assembly at a Legislative Lowdown Power Breakfast presented by the Columbia Regional Business Report. Newly elected Democratic State Sen. Mia McLeod was supposed to be part of the panel, but sprained her ankle the night before and was unable to appear. McLeod, a former member of the S.C. House, won the District 22 seat vacated by Sen. Joel Lourie, which represents a large portion of northeast Richland County, as well as a part of Kershaw County. 

All three of House members believe that the anticipated elevation of Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster to the governor’s chair will bring a new spirit of collaboration between the governor’s office and the General Assembly. McMaster would succeed current Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Haley, a former state legislator herself, has had a sometimes contentious relationship with the General Assembly.

Smith, the lone Democrat on the panel who represents District 72 in Richland County, said he is looking forward to working with the new Republican governor. “I see him working proactively with us, seeing where we can achieve agreement and move our state forward.  I think it will be good for South Carolina,” Smith said.

He said McMaster, who as lieutenant governor serves in the largely ceremonial post of Senate president, has long-standing, good working relationships with members of the General Assembly. Smith has been a member of the legislature since 1997 and is first vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and also serves on the Legislative Oversight Committee.

Republican Huggins echoed Smith adding that he believes the new governor will be pro-growth and “will make a collaborative effort to put cohesion back into working with the General Assembly. I think that will be something that will be a new day in South Carolina.” Huggins represents District 85 of Lexington County. He has served in the House of Representative since 1999 and is a member of the Ways and Means and Regulations and Administrative Procedures committees.

Ballentine, R-Chapin, who represents District 71, including areas of Lexington and Richland counties, pointed out other state leadership changes as well that will impact the General Assembly.  The state will have a new lieutenant governor and probably new president pro tem of the Senate. According to South Carolina’s line of gubernatorial succession, the president pro-tempore of the Senate, currently State Sen. Hugh Leatherman of Florence, would become lieutenant governor. However, Leatherman has said he would not accept the office, further throwing the issue of who will lead the state Senate into question.

The issue of Senate leadership also impacts what the three House members see as one of the state’s biggest issues – finding a permanent solution to repairing the state’s roads and bridges.

During the 2106 legislative session, the House passed what Ballentine termed “a pretty good plan.”  But a filibuster in the Senate killed it.  He believes the House stands committed to finding a fix for the infrastructure issue whether it is a gas tax hike or some other measure.  And changes in Senate rules could make it easier this year.

The Senate recently moved to change some of the rules that have been used to block legislation, such as making it easier to end filibusters and eliminating “minority reports” that a single senator can use to block a bill even though it has won committee approval.

“I’m encouraged by rule changes in the Senate,” Smith said. “It might be more difficulty for a single senator to hold up progress in the state, which is what we’ve seen every year.  Six months of legislative effort goes by and one senator can stop it. That needs to change,” Smith said.

Coupled with a decision made last year to shorten the legislative session, Ballentine and his fellow legislators hope that things will be different during the 2017 session.

“James and I wear different jerseys, but we can find common ground. We have to come together and realize you’re not always going to get a touchdown. Sometimes you have to settle for a field goal,” Ballentine said.

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