South Carolina House Overrides Veto of Insurance Tax Earmark for Wildfires

By | June 22, 2012

The South Carolina House this week overrode Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of a bill that would provide an agency with new, safer equipment to fight wildfires. Meanwhile, the House upheld her veto of a measure meant to help former convicts secure jobs.

The House voted 108-2 to override her opposition to providing the Forestry Commission with an estimated $15 million over four years by designating 2.25 percent of insurance premium taxes for equipment. The vote in the Senate will decide whether the bill becomes law.

Forestry officials showed off the state’s first closed-cab bulldozers at the Statehouse two weeks ago, saying they’ll keep firefighters safer while allowing them to get closer to the flames. Haley touted the bulldozers then as an example of how government should spend money.

The agency bought 10 units with $3 million in the current budget. The budget proposal for 2012-13 provides an additional $3.5 million for 12 units, which includes the bulldozer, transport truck and plow.

“I am reluctant to go above and beyond this,” Haley wrote in her veto message. “I am additionally wary of dedicating general fund revenues to specific uses, since this practice commits us to spending patterns that limit our ability to respond to revenue shortfalls.”

But Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, told lawmakers that the forestry commission’s needs are greater than the combined $6.5 million can remedy. He said the limited designation will protect property and lives.

The state’s existing 140 units range from 4 to 23 years old, with nearly 40 percent of them dating to 1996, and 10 units bought before 1995. Officials say that means they have an overabundance of equipment older than the 15-year industry standard.

The bulldozers are used to create fire breaks meant to rob a wildfire of fuel and contain the flames.

The closed-cab tractors filter out smoke and have air conditioning to ward off heat. A thick layer of glass also provides a safe place if fire overruns the equipment.

Also on Tuesday, the House killed a bill designed to help former convicts who have turned their lives around secure jobs. The 49-62 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override.

The bill would allow nonviolent felonies to be erased from the records of pardoned residents. The bill allows only one such do-over. The request would be denied if a victim or officer objects. The state already allows people convicted of a misdemeanor to have the charge expunged.

Haley opposed the measure as overly broad, saying it would allow the expunging of too many offenses.

“The result would be businesses and communities being unfairly deprived of the ability to be informed about the criminal history of those caring for our children, minding our cash registers and installing our alarm systems,” the Republican wrote in her veto message.

She said she’ll work with sponsoring Rep. Todd Rutherford next year on a more limited bill.

But Rutherford said residents are trying to find jobs now, and employers won’t hire those with a criminal record, no matter how old the crime.

“They can’t wait until next year. They’ve got to feed their families this year. She’s telling them, `No,”‘ said Rutherford, D-Columbia, who pre-filed the bill in December 2010. “What Christian ethic is it that we do not forgive?”

He noted that a pardon allows an ex-con to carry a gun: “The true question is, what does a pardon mean? … The government says you can carry a gun but can’t get a job?”

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told lawmakers Tuesday that the bill was bad public policy. He said a business owner could run the risk of hiring someone who’s been convicted or arson or embezzlement, or the adult-care industry could unknowingly hire someone with a past conviction of neglect or abuse.

He said he’s not opposed to a bill that places more limits on the crimes and eligible age, focusing on someone’s youthful transgressions.

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