Workers’ Comp on Priority List for S.C. Legislature, Gov. Sanford

By | January 8, 2007

Education, health care and workers’ compensation insurance top legislators’ lists of things they’ll address when they return to Columbia on Tuesday for the 2007 legislative session.

The first week includes some ceremony as Gov. Mark Sanford will be sworn in Wednesday for his second term.

Although Republicans control the Legislature and the executive branch, it’s clear their priorities are not the same. Topping Sanford’s must-do list is government restructuring and raising the state’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to help lower the income tax rate for the state’s wealthiest residents.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said he thinks the General Assembly will focus on education and the state’s economy. The two issues are intertwined, he said, because better academic performance plays a key role in reducing unemployment and increasing income.

Last year, legislators responded to a judge’s ruling on inadequate spending on the state’s youngest and poorest students by creating a $23 million, 4-year-old kindergarten program in the districts that sued the state.

House Education Chairman Bob Walker, R-Landrum, is pushing a statewide program for at-risk children.

But Sanford’s budget proposal doesn’t expand 4-K. The governor wants “opportunity scholarships” for parents to send their children to better public or private schools. That’s not expected to get far as the House repeatedly has rejected similar proposals.

The system Sanford wants has “been debated, it’s been heard and I don’t see it getting any legs on it,” said Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia.

But parents could come get more school choice this session. Walker said his committee will focus on an open enrollment plan to let parents transfer their children to other public schools.

Legislators also could expand public charter schools, said House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews. “But I don’t see any great desire to take public funds and transfer it to private schools.”

Sanford is pushing a workers’ compensation overhaul again this year. A House committee met for months last year to try to reduce losses in the system and give businesses a break on premiums. But even supporters didn’t like the version that finally cleared the House and no one complained when it died in the Senate.

“That’s going to be the biggie this year,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney. Rising workers’ comp premiums have hurt the state’s job recruiting efforts, he said.

But Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Manning, calls that debate “much ado about nothing.” Land, a workers’ comp lawyer, says the problems are tied to “sloppy insurers” and soaring health care costs.

Health care is a top priority for many legislators.

Unlike Sanford, many legislators want to use money from a higher cigarette tax to expand Medicaid programs, provide health insurance for uninsured children and make health insurance generally more affordable.

“It’s imperative we provide affordable health care for working South Carolinians,” Ott said.

But Harrell and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said a no-new-tax pledge signed by many Republicans will make it difficult for them to agree to an increase in the state’s 7-cents-per-pack cigarette tax no matter where the new money goes.

Sanford also wants government restructuring to get through the Legislature in his second term.

The $6.5 billion budget he released this week includes detailed plans to merge agencies and eliminate elections for some statewide positions, making them gubernatorial appointees instead.

The idea may have received a boost from a recent state audit critical of the Transportation Department’s management and spending practices, Peeler said. “I’m ready to Etch-a-Sketch the way we’re doing business over there and start from scratch,” he said.

However, some still oppose changing the way some statewide officials are chosen.

“I’m not for taking away a person’s right to vote when we have people overseas fighting so those people can have the right,” Knotts said.

Harrell and McConnell have proposed legislation that lets voters decide whether they want to keep voting for certain offices.

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