State legislators could stay busy this entire year dealing with nothing but the pandemic: deciding how to allocate limited state funding, how to revive the economy, how to make up for all the damage the pandemic has done to children, who should be required to be vaccinated — all alongside preventing legislative outbreaks that would send them home before their work is done.
And of course, lawmakers will debate whether to scale up or scale back the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions, what emergency powers he should have and how long they should last, whether local governments should have more or less authority to handle emergencies, how many students should be allowed back into the classrooms, and how DHEC should distribute the vaccine.
While we’d rather the Legislature steer clear of micromanaging, many of those decisions do need to be made, and made wisely.
But the 2021 General Assembly doesn’t have the luxury of focusing only on the pandemic. Despite being blessed with abundant natural resources and honest and hard-working people, South Carolina remains a poor state with deep social and political divisions, and lawmakers will open the annual session Tuesday with everything on their daunting 2020 to-do list left undone — and no less urgent need to act.
Here are six things they need to accomplish this session:
1. Educate all kids
Too many children were struggling to learn before the pandemic locked them out of their classrooms for months and did what could become irreparable damage if we don’t take extraordinary steps to make up for their learning losses.
Although the Legislature made wise use of federal funds to enhance online learning and agreed in the fall to bring high-speed internet service to more of the state, lawmakers have to do what they too often fail to do after putting promising frameworks in place: follow through.
They also need to make sure schools have the resources and the requirement to provide extended school days, focused attention or intensive summer programs for students who need it. They might have to intervene — quickly — if school districts refuse to reopen in-person classes this month.
And they can’t stop there. Nothing our state does is more important than educating the next generation, and our policies and spending must reflect that. South Carolina faced a teaching shortage even before the pandemic, and too many districts weren’t delivering on a decent education.
Lawmakers have to make real progress on expanding and improving early childhood education, improving teacher preparation programs, providing teachers the support they need to teach and intervening in districts that aren’t getting the job done.
2. Settle Santee Cooper
The pandemic cut short last year’s debate about the fate of the unaccountable, deeply indebted Santee Cooper, but we had already seen enough to know that our state would not benefit from NextEra’s bid to purchase the state-owned utility. Gov. Henry McMaster and some legislators are still determined to sell.
It’s a philosophical rather than a pragmatic question for them, and the collapse of the $9 billion nuclear expansion project Santee Cooper undertook with the now defunct SCE&G just gave them an opening to pursue it.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to negotiate a better deal — and selling if we can get a deal that won’t cost the state and will result in more reliable, cleaner energy and lower electricity rates, locked in not just for the next year but for decades to come.
But the odds of that don’t seem good, and nearly three years after V.C. Summer, Santee Cooper continues to operate largely on its own terms, with a board that answers to no one.
This can’t continue: Lawmakers must reform the utility to make its governing board more accountable, preferably to the governor.
3. Reform policing
For too many years, we’ve allowed a few bad cops to endanger the public and all the good cops whose jobs grow ever-more dangerous as a result of the actions by the bullies in uniform who can’t handle the adrenaline rush and consider disrespect a capital offense.
Authorities have compounded the problem by refusing to charge them with crimes or even fire them when they injure or kill innocent people — creating such widespread distrust that an unspeakably heinous killing in another state last year sparked the most sustained protests our state has experienced in generations.
Lawmakers need to respond with reforms that will make it clear that while we won’t tolerate lawlessness by ordinary citizens, we won’t tolerate it by police either.
Some of the specific reforms needed would: refocus police training to teach officers how to deescalate potentially violent encounters; outlaw shooting a fleeing suspect in most cases; require officers to intervene when their colleagues act inappropriately; abolish no-knock warrants; require outside investigations of police-involved shootings; stop letting officers get their stories straight before being questioned; fund the 2005 body camera mandate and update the meager law concerning cameras — for instance, imposing penalties on officers who turn them off except under limited circumstances and requiring that the video be made public except in extraordinary cases.
4. Protect our natural resources
For reasons ranging from safeguarding our tourism economy to promoting free-market competition, the Legislature has taken a decided turn toward efforts to fight global climate change. But a great deal more is needed to help Charleston and other coastal communities combat the existential threat from rising seas.
Lawmakers still need to enact a permanent ban on permitting land-based facilities that support exploration or drilling off our coast. They need to create a regulatory system to prevent tiny plastic pellets from spilling into Charleston Harbor and polluting our beaches as the State Ports Authority continues its drive to recruit nurdle exporters to the Lowcountry.
They need to follow through on promising laws passed last year that create the frameworks for vigorous state and local flood resiliency and risk-reduction efforts and shift us toward solar and other cleaner energy sources.
And they need to reject efforts to use the pandemic as an excuse to roll back our state’s modest environmental protections.
5. Combat abuse of office
We started 2020 knowing that too many judges don’t understand the law or the concept of neutrality, too many judicial regulators can’t find any abuses to police, too many sheriffs ignore the laws they’re supposed to enforce, too many agencies can’t seem to understand our state’s public records law, too many boards ignore our open meeting law, too many local officials accept gifts from companies that want their business, and our campaign finance law allows too many people to pour money anonymously into election campaigns.
Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of court orders that are unlikely to change behavior beyond the discrete disputes at hand, we ended 2020 the same way.
Lawmakers need to change the political culture that invites public officials to put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the public, by creating the sort of oversight that would deter them from crossing ethical and legal lines and make it easier to identify and punish them if they do. That means passing tougher disclosure laws, with tougher watchdogs enforcing those laws and tougher penalties for violating them.
6. Respect local government
When Gov. McMaster was pressed to order South Carolinians to wear masks, he waxed eloquent about how local governments know better than the state how to protect their own communities, and urged cities and counties to issue mask mandates. A cynic would call this an easy out for a governor who didn’t want to accept the political risk of imposing a mandate but knew we needed one.
Whatever his motivation, it was probably the highest-level testament we’ve seen in South Carolina to the idea that local elected officials should be able to make decisions about what happens in their communities. It’s an attitude the Legislature needs to adopt.
Fortunately, legislators haven’t rushed forward, as they have leading up to previous sessions, with an avalanche of bills to further restrict city and county authority. We hope that’s because they’re starting to get the point. To the degree that they divert their attention from their many statewide tasks, we hope it will be to roll back some of the restrictions already in place, and to ensure that they don’t further reduce funding to local governments.