Education, Ethics Reform & Judicial Update

The House adjourned Wednesday due to inclement weather, shaving a legislative day from the calendar, but not before we moved on education reform, advanced an omnibus ethics reform bill, and received an update on the state of South Carolina’s judicial system.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Jay Lucas set priorities and expectations for the work the House Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force is undertaking. The diverse task force, made up of citizens, business leaders and elected officials begins work to develop recommendations that will lead to long-term substantial education reform in South Carolina. The group is required to submit a report of their findings to Speaker Lucas by the beginning of next legislative session.

Strengthening our state’s ethics laws remains one of my top priorities. In the House we have already taken the piecemeal approach to enacting ethics reform by passing a series of 12 ethics bills as a part of our comprehensive overall ethics reform package. We have completed the series of smaller bills and have now combined each of those into one omnibus ethics package which is being fast-tracked on the House floor. The House Republican Caucus supports the omnibus package and our goal is to give the Senate either vehicle necessary for passage.

Each year the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court is tasked with giving the State of the Judiciary to a joint session of both House and Senate lawmakers. Chief Justice Toal delivered her remarks on Wednesday primarily focusing on the innovation instituted in the judicial process over the past decade. State courts that previously didn’t have internet access now operate with high-speed internet access, and large portions of the judicial branch now operate in a secure web-based cloud through a partnership with Clemson University. A new pilot program begins this year in two counties that will test an online system used to file legal paperwork, streamlining the process for the citizens of South Carolina.

I would also like to extend an invitation for you to join my House Republican Caucus colleagues and me as we welcome an array of possible presidential hopefuls to South Carolina. Last week we had a reception honoring Governor Kasich of Ohio with nearly 200 in attendance and a national media audience. The next time you see a cable news discussion of the 2016 presidential race, don’t be surprised when you see John Kasich standing in front of a Caucus logo banner as one of the background screen images. This week we announced former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will be in Columbia with us next month. You can go th this website for more information and to find out how to reserve your spot. http://us10.campaign-archive1.com/?u=255b3094b44d99b2d1990b50c&id=7c3b9e0bec&e=a94ab772f9

As always, thank you for the privilege of serving you in Columbia. If I can ever be of assistance to you, or if you have ideas on issues you want me to share with the rest of the General Assembly, please don’t hesitate to contact me at 803 734-3045 at my office in Columbia or 963-0337 at home.

Ethics Reform & Budget

The South Carolina House of Representatives had a busy week producing an initial state budget, moving again on ethics reform, and continuing to push for increased transparency in government.

In an overwhelming 90-16 vote, the House passed H.3191, the first major update of S.C.’s Freedom of Information Act in nearly thirty years. It puts enforcement teeth into the law to prevent governmental bodies from refusing to hand over public documents. The legislation will utilize the ‘Office of Freedom of Information’ within the Administrative Law Court allowing citizens and public bodies to resolve FOIA disputes without having to file a costly lawsuit.

Wrapping the FOIA bill in the reform package gave it renewed momentum and was key to its passage. Among other things, the legislation cuts the time for receiving a requested response for documents from 15 days to 10, sets limits on costs to search for items, and requires copies be provided at the prevailing local copy rates.

One of the final bills in our ethics reform package, clarifying the law following a Supreme Court ruling, saw final passage. The bill makes clear that a public agenda is required before a government body meets – giving no less than 24 hours public notice. It also states that only agenda items may be considered during the meeting, but does provide an exemption in cases of emergency. This gives greater public awareness and ensures government on all levels in South Carolina is not allowed to operate in secret.

The House Ways and Means Full Committee began meeting Tuesday to vote on agency requests and to finalize a written state budget. We focused on funding the core functions of government and eliminating waste and duplication. Proposing and passing a balanced budget is one the most important things we do each year. We will begin debate on the House floor in the coming weeks.

Also, we were honored to host Governor John Kasich (R-Ohio) in Columbia at the House Republican Caucus reception Wednesday night. The nearly 200 attendees got to experience first-hand the electric environment of a prominent national Republican’s visit to South Carolina and the added security, trail of reporters, and cameras that follow.

As always, thank you for the privilege of serving you in Columbia. If I can ever be of assistance to you, or if you have ideas on issues you want me to share with the rest of the General Assembly, please don’t hesitate to contact me at 803 734-3045 at my office in Columbia, and 963-0337 at home.

Regulatory & Ethics Reform, Protecting Our Children, Improving Our Roads & Honoring National Republican Leaders

The House of Representatives, led by your Republican majority, made significant progress on regulatory reform, updating public safety laws, and protecting the unborn this week.

Government red tape and over-regulation burden job creators and stifle small business start-ups – I hear this repeatedly from business owners here in our district. We passed a regulatory reform law in the House placing a sunset provision on all future regulations. Many regulations are outdated, and this new measure would give an automatic expiration to regulations five years after implementation. This ensures an ongoing review of our regulations and provides the business community’s opportunity to have input. The bill now heads to the Senate, and I hope they will join us in lending a hand to the businesses and innovators that drive our state’s economy.

Last week I mentioned that the Pain-Capable Child Protection Act cleared a significant hurdle. I am pleased to report my colleagues joined me in giving final passage to this important bill. The House passed this same legislation last year, but the Senate failed to pass it. I will continue to use every opportunity given to me to support the right to life of the unborn in South Carolina.

We took additional steps this week to pass the next set of ethics reform legislation – part of our larger ethics reform package. We passed the Whistleblower and Public Employee Protection Act providing public employees legal protections and substantially increased financial incentives for reporting unethical behavior when your tax dollars are on the line. I was also proud to support H 3195 which tightens and clarifies our existing ethics statutes. The act also gives guidance to elected officials about the proper use of political campaign dollars.

We continue to discuss the best path forward to fix our ailing road system. On Wednesday, the two highly-discussed proposals – one resembling Governor Nikki Haley’s plan and one from the House Transportation Infrastructure & Management Ad-Hoc Committee – were placed into bill form. Both bills head to the House Ways and Means Committee where work will begin to find common ground. If you have not yet taken the chance to share your thoughts with me on this important matter, I encourage you to take a moment to do so today.

One of the core functions of a limited government is providing for the safety of our children and otherwise vulnerable adults. All too often during the heat of our South Carolina summers, we see news reports of children who have died while trapped or locked inside hot vehicles. My House colleagues and I supported a measure that would give certain legal protections to bystanders who rescue those trapped inside sweltering cars and trucks.

This Wednesday, the House Republican Caucus will be hosting a reception for Ohio Governor John Kasich. The reception will be Wednesday night from 5:30-7:00pm at the Hilton in Columbia (924 Senate St, Columbia, SC). I want to extend a personal invitation to you. Ensure your complementary priority members’ guest reservation by clicking here or emailing rsvp@schousegop.org or texting SCHRC to 99000. Hope to see you there.

As always, thank you for the privilege of serving you in Columbia. If I can ever be of assistance to you, or if you have ideas on issues you want me to share with the rest of the General Assembly, please don’t hesitate to contact me at 803 734-3045 at my office in Columbia, or 864 963-0337 at home.

Transparency, Ethics, & Protecting our Citizens

This week the work of the House of Representatives was described by House Republican Majority Leader Bruce Bannister as a “sprint in the midst of a legislative marathon.” We made significant strides toward increasing transparency in government, ensuring our state is adequately prepared to deal with natural disasters, and adding significant protections for the unborn – a busy week.

As part of our larger series of highly-focused ethics legislation, this week the House passed three more important reforms. The first strengthens campaign finance reporting laws, while the second clarifies how campaign funds should be attributed to primaries and primary run-off campaigns. The third provides certain exemptions to encourage state-funded university employees to develop intellectual property that benefits institutions of higher learning, making South Carolina more competitive in the effort to attract and retain top quality researchers.

On Wednesday, a House Judiciary panel gave initial approval to several more pieces of “sunshine legislation” aimed at increasing transparency while simultaneously decreasing the amount of time and red tape associated with obtaining public records. It sets an important precedent by adding more sunshine to the processes of government.

We also took preemptive action this week by giving initial approval to a bill that would guarantee the State of South Carolina is adequately equipped to deal with emergency situations. Preparation for emergency scenarios is a vital aspect of protecting South Carolinians for decades to come, which we can ensure by giving our state law enforcement agencies the ability to obtain necessary resources in our times of greatest need. It has been said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and emergency arrangements should not be made in the midst of a crisis.

The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act once again made its way through the committee approval process. Providing statutory protections for the unborn remains a top priority for House Republicans, and we will begin debate on this important issue next week on the House Floor.

This was also the last week of budget hearings, and the House Ways and Means Committee now begins the mammoth task of writing the state budget. Unlike Congress, we produce a balanced budget in South Carolina each year. I’ll be sharing more on that with you in the coming weeks.

I want to thank the many citizens who have shared their ideas with me on how we should proceed as a state on fixing our roads and bridges. Your feedback is valuable and necessary as part of our democratic process, and I look forward to continuing these conversations as I carefully examine the best path forward.

As always, thank you for the privilege of serving you in Columbia. If I can ever be of assistance to you, or if you have ideas on issues you want me to share with the rest of the General Assembly, please don’t hesitate to contact me at 803 734–3045 at my office in Columbia or 963-0337 at home.

Ethics and Infrastructure

The South Carolina House of Representatives advanced two important milestone pieces of legislation taking a major step forward in overhauling the state’s antiquated ethics laws that govern elected and appointed officials at all levels of government.

The first revamps the makeup of the South Carolina Ethics Commission and turns the Commission into an independent investigative body. The independent commission is given the full resources of the South Carolina law enforcement community and is tasked with investigating ethics complaints made against elected officials. Under the House plan passed this week the State Ethics Commission is comprised of 4 members appointed by the Governor, 4 elected by the Supreme Court, and 2 members elected by each the House and Senate. The measure passed the House unanimously.

The second bans candidate affiliated “Leadership” Political Action Committees (PACs). It even goes one step further and states that elected officials can no longer accept campaign contributions from Leadership PACs. This is an important step toward revamping the campaign finance laws in South Carolina.

Finally, the House Transportation Infrastructure & Management Ad-Hoc Committee finalized a plan to fix our state’s roads and bridges. The bi-partisan committee has been at work since last September to find solutions to fixing our state roads and bridges. The committee agreed on an initial proposal that would serve as a blueprint for one of the most important issues facing our state. The bill is expected to be introduced next week. Right now we are considering our House proposal and the Governor’s proposal from the State of the State. If you have an opinion, I’d like to hear from you.

It is an honor and a privilege to serve you in Columbia. If you need help navigating state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me at 803 734-3045 or at 963-0337 at home.

Progress Continues On Roads and Ethics

At the Statehouse this week the major focus was on finding additional money to repair South Carolina’s deteriorating roads. The issue was advanced when Governor Nikki Haley delivered her annual State of the State address. I was happy to hear the governor’s support for many of the approaches we have been debating to improve our roads and bridges across the state. That’s going to take considerably more money than is currently allocated.

The governor released her much-anticipated plan to fix the state’s aging roads and bridges which looks very similar to the common-sense proposals we have been working on in the House. Governor Haley offered her three pronged solution to paying for road and bridge improvements by proposing to raise South Carolina’s 16.5-cents per-gallon gas tax, but only if it was included in a “three part package.” That legislative package includes a major tax break for taxpayers in a 2% reduction in the state income tax top rate of 7 percent to 5 percent while restructuring the Department of Transportation to make it more efficient and responsive.

Funding additional road improvements is a complicated issue with no quick and easy solutions. It is critically important to maximize the existing funding in the budget by determining how money already budgeted can be redirected to road improvements; that’s most efficient.

We look forward to working with Governor Haley to find responsible solutions to the infrastructure challenges we face.

“Our Republican House majority is enthusiastic about working with the Governor to accomplish this shared agenda to make South Carolina an even better place to live, work, and raise a family,“ said S.C. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister.

This week the House advanced legislation to reform our state’s ethics laws that affects all 20,000 elected and appointed officials in the state. An income disclosure measure that is part of a larger sweeping ethics reform package cleared its first hurdle in a House subcommittee and moves to the full House Judiciary Committee.

Subcommittee Chairman Kirkman Finlay noted that, “Income disclosure is the start to creating better public confidence of public officials at all levels. The goal of the legislation is to eliminate the possibility that elected officials or their immediate family are using the elected position for personal gain. This bill will be instrumental in moving our state forward on substantive ethics reform.”

Finally, as is typical in January, much work is being done in the Ways and Means Subcommittees as members begin crafting next year’s state budget. Committee meetings are of paramount importance to move newly-filed legislation forward, therefore, we spend as little time as possible on the House floor so they could have time to get our committee work done.

It is an honor and a privilege to serve you in Columbia again this year. If you need help navigating state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me at 803 734-3045 at my office in Columbia or 864 963-0337 at home.

New Legislative Session Dawns

The South Carolina General Assembly convened the 121st Regular Session this week with much pomp and circumstance with the inauguration of the Governor and the oath of office administered to the state’s Constitutional Officers.

Much of this week was spent in budget subcommittee meetings for me, and working with Speaker Jay Lucas and his staff to clarify the new role of the House Operations And Management Committee, which I am Chairman. This week we reviewed the budget requests of the South Carolina Lottery Commission, the South Carolina Tuition Grants, Francis Marion University, and Coastal Carolina University.
   
The Republican Caucus is focused on the big issues of helping make the lives of citizens better and our state more prosperous with an expanding economy making more jobs available.
 
One of the top goals is to find substantial funding to pave the way to our state’s better future by strengthening our road and bridge infrastructure. Solving this challenge will provide South Carolina with a competitive advantage over other states in our effort to keep existing businesses and to attract new and expanding businesses.
  
Nearly 300 bills have already been filed in the House requiring our committees to begin the task of hearings with testimony and deliberations that will result in bills being sent to the House floor for debate and votes. The business of the people of South Carolina is under way.

In the coming weeks, I will reach out to you to prioritize the agenda. I am holding a Town Hall meeting at the Fountain Inn History Museum on Thursday, January 29th at 6:00 PM.

As always, thank you for the privilege of serving you in Columbia.  If I can ever be of assistance to you, or if you have ideas on issues you want me to share with the rest of the General Assembly, please don’t hesitate to contact me at 803-734-3045 at my office in Columbia, or 864-963-0337 at home.

The Smartphone Meets the Fourth Amendment; issues remain after SCOTUS decision

Many of us are never far from our cell phones. We certainly never leave home without them and landlines are becoming an anachronism. But, for all their utility, cell phones are poorly locked portals that lead directly into our private lives.

Cell phones, particularly the newer smartphones, are so useful precisely because they have the ability to store and retrieve an incredible amount of data anytime, anywhere. Almost everything about our families is stored on our smartphones: photographs, email and voice messages, schedules, text messages, and even Internet browsing histories are available to anyone with the skill and equipment to break into these devices. More importantly, smartphones can provide access to bank and credit card accounts, and even medical data. As a result, new challenges are presented for laws that protect personal information from theft or unauthorized search.

It is no wonder, then, that electronic communications privacy is becoming more important by the day. As technology advances, so does the ability of intruders to capture our sensitive financial and personal data for criminal purposes. At the same time, while law enforcement has a public interest in gaining access to the data used by criminals in the commission of their crimes, citizens have a constitutional right to be free from government agents rifling through their personal data at will.

Cell phone tracking by law enforcement is becoming an important crime-fighting tool, but a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling asserted that a GPS tracking device placed on a suspect’s car violated his Fourth Amendment rights. This ruling did not directly involve cell phones, but since all smartphones have a built-in GPS, it raises questions about the standards for cell phone tracking as well.

On Wednesday, June 25th, however, the U.S. Supreme Court did rule on the issue of cell phone searches in a historic unanimous decision. Chief Justice John Roberts in writing the opinion said, “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life,’ ” he said. He went on to say, “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”

While this ruling addressed the issue of cell phone searches, the fact that so much of the data from our devices are stored by services, or actually not stored on our device but by others, the problem of protection of our data still remains.

This problem is illustrated by and article written in the Wall Street Journal June 28th. This article notes that the National Security Administration collection of phone data in 2013 increased by 50%, as reported by the agency.

Citizens need to be protected from invasions of privacy by thieves and they need to know how far the government can go in accessing their personal lives. Moreover, law enforcement and businesses need certainty about the rules for accessing personal data. While Congress and some states have taken steps to provide protections, new technology frequently outpaces the law; for example, the most “recent” federal law governing searching electronic communications was adopted in 1986.

Because these issues are important to citizens throughout the country, the matter has been taken up by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is a national conference of state legislators who meet regularly to share ideas on potential model policies that address today’s top economic issues. Through ALEC, I have been working with legislators from around the country to develop model policies to protect citizens both from technologically advanced thieves and from uncertainties in the nation’s search and seizure laws.

As a member of the ALEC Communications & Technology Task Force, I have been able to spend time with civil liberties groups, technology companies, law enforcement and scholars to discuss the many challenges presented by these issues. This task force has been instrumental in debating and drafting model policy known as the model Electronic Data Privacy Protection Act, which was finalized last year and made available to the public at www.alec.org.

Lawmakers need to give the courts some guidance about how far we want to go. The South Carolina Legislature has already begun addressing these issues. In 2014, I sponsored legislation which provided that data and location information stored in a cell phone or similar wireless communications device, and stored by third party vendors is not subject to a police search without a warrant. This bill was passed by the House but failed to pass the Senate by the end of the session. I plan to try again in the next session.

Three other states–Maine, Montana and Texas–have already acted to protect their citizens’ privacy by passing laws that require warrants for accessing smartphone location data and content. The model I developed with the help of ALEC draws heavily from these laws.

Smartphones have dramatically changed our lives, mostly for the better, and their utility has made them indispensable. It will certainly have renewed interest as the privacy of our personal and business communications becomes ever more critical.

The Flurry of the Final Week

The final week of the legislative session – sine die week or “without days” – is always a flurry of activity as legislators and senators scramble to get important legislation complete.
This week was no exception. We took a big step forward on ethics reform, protected children from drug-abusing parents, and banned texting while driving, among many other things.

The House was disappointed that the Senate stalled on Ethics Reform (again) after a compromise was reached early in the week and the House approved the compromise 110-12. One Upstate Senator filibustered the reform until a compromise was reached for the Senate to consider the legislation when we return to consider the governor’s budget vetoes on June 17th.

The Ethics Reform Act doesn’t give us everything we wanted. It doesn’t give our constituents everything you said you wanted. But too many times in the past decade, we have sacrificed good reforms at the altar of being perfect. Our ethics laws were written 20 years ago, before campaigns had credit cards, cell phone bills, or online fundraising. The law needed to be updated, and the compromise consists of many critical changes.
We approved increased transparency, more income disclosure, tighter rules on third-party money, eliminated Leadership PACs, required more proof of expenses, ended fundraising by government bureaucrats, increased regulation of lobbyists, and increased ethics enforcement and penalties. This isn’t “reform in name only” as many who are fearful of true reform may charge.

What isn’t in the bill is a body that will do independent investigations of public officials – including statewide officials, members of the General Assembly, and judges. Senators on the conference committee told the media in no uncertain terms this week that they would not approve that reform.

Ethics Reform cuts to the heart of good government. We must trust our leaders. The House decided to follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps and get what we could today and come back for the rest tomorrow. Governor Haley indicated her support for the bill on social media on Thursday, and we hope the Senate will follow suit.

We approved a ban on texting while driving. You are still allowed to text while stopped at a stoplight or stop sign, but not while the car is moving (except in case of emergency). Fines begin at $25, but you will not receive points for a citation. South Carolina is one of the last states in the union to pass such a ban, even though the House has given preliminary approval to such measures a few times.

One final piece of legislation that we approved Thursday was Jaidon’s Law. The bill gives our courts clear guidelines on when to terminate parental rights, specifically when the parents or guardians have a history of drug abuse or child abuse. It also requires drug-abusing parents pass drug tests and treatment programs as a condition of keeping their parental rights. Our thanks to Rep. Mike Forrester of Spartanburg for his dogged pursuit of this legislation over the last two years.

One thing that didn’t get done this year was more funds to repair our crumbling infrastructure. The House overwhelmingly appropriated money from the sales tax on cars (a more stable funding source than the gasoline tax) to the Department of Transportation. The legislation did not make it out of the Senate. Instead of $41 million a year dedicated to fixing roads and bridges, the Senate only approved about $15 million.

As always, it is a privilege to serve you in the South Carolina House. If you ever need help with state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me at 963-0337 or at my office in Columbia at 803 734-3045.

The Final Stretch for True Ethics Reform

The string of headlines on ethics issues over the past six years means the time has come to strengthen our laws. I have written about this issue a number of times over the past two years as the House has studied and debated the Ethics Act.

This week, the House put the finishing touches on a bi-partisan Ethics Reform Act that passed 110-0. A true recounting of this issue would take many pages (or pixels on your computer screen), so here are a few of the major reforms our Ethics Reform Act fixes:

1) Independent Investigations for Reported Ethics Violations: We established a 12-member independent panel responsible for investigating every ethics matter that arises for members of all branches of the government: executive (including local officials), legislative, and judicial. This body only has the authority to receive and investigate complaints. Adjudication of those complaints will go back to the appropriate enforcement committee. Two members would be appointed by the House, two by the Senate, four by the Governor, and four by the state Supreme Court.
Who would be on this committee was a point of contention, since it is imperative that we remove as many sources of conflicts of interest as possible. Nobody on the committee may be a public official, an office holder, a family member of an official, been a lobbyist for the previous four years, or a judge. In addition, we excluded anybody who had made a campaign contribution to the person who nominated them or anybody who is a business associate of the person nominating them. The members of the committee must also avoid making any political contributions or engaging in any political activity covered by the ethics act.
2) Expanded Income Disclosure: This legislation requires reporting of the source of any private income by the filer or their immediate family members. It requires the reporting of the specific source of income received from a lobbyist principal, state or local government source, or business regulated by the filer. This will give the public new access to information on the potential conflicts of interest that may arise with public officials.
3) Banned “Leadership PACs”: We removed language that allows political action committees controlled directly or indirectly by a candidate to exist.
4) Financial Records: The legislation allows an official’s ethics supervisory committee to request banking records that are required to be maintained by public officials. Public officials must now keep these records for four years (to match the statute of limitations). We changed this so the committees may substantiate information on a candidate’s quarterly disclosures.
5) “Black Out” Period: We require candidates to file a final pre-election report 48 hours before the election in order to disclose final contributions and expenditures.
6) New Restrictions on Campaign Funds: The law adds language detailing how candidates may reimburse themselves with campaign funds for travel and associated expenses by limiting mileage reimbursement to the IRS established rate, and limiting other travel expenses to either campaign events or events that fall within the scope of the candidates official duties. (And the law more strictly defines what official duties are.”
The legislation also clarifies that equipment purchased for campaign use must be consumed by the campaign or become an asset of the campaign. It requires payment for campaign services to be contemporaneous with the provision of those services and disallow immediate family from being paid by a campaign. It also disallows cash expenditures from campaign accounts.

While this legislation may not fix every ethics issue that every person may have, this goes a long way toward updating our 20-year-old Ethics Act to better reflect the realities of modern campaigns. There is no doubt that more tweaks and clarifications will be needed as these reforms are implemented, but after two years of bi-partisan study and debate in the House, this is a strong reform law that duly earned the support of many outside watchdog groups after it was approved this week.

As always, it is a privilege to serve you in the South Carolina House. If you ever need help with state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me at 963-0337 at home or 803 734-3045 at my office in Columbia.