SCICU legislative outlook from President and CEO Jeff Perez — Education reform will be at the top of the SC General Assembly’s agenda during the 2019 legislative session, as will how to spend an additional $1 billion. Including independent higher education in these discussions will be a major part of SCICU’s 2019 advocacy efforts.
In recent sessions the General Assembly has tended to focus on one major issue. Last year, it was addressing SCANA and Santee Cooper’s abandonment of the multi-billion dollar VC Summer nuclear power generation plant. The session before the General Assembly was absorbed with passing an increase to the state gas tax.
There is wide agreement that reforming K-12 education will be at the top of this session’s priorities. During a pre-session meeting with reporters, senators and house members all mentioned the importance of addressing education needs. And in his inaugural address Governor McMaster stated: “We must also commit ourselves to providing the highest quality education for South Carolina’s children if we are to continue to compete in the future for jobs and economic prosperity.” And later, “Being perceived as weak in education is not good. But, being perceived as not committed to fixing it is disastrous. We will fix it…”
Our job will be to work for inclusion of higher education in this education discussion. A focus during this session will be S.298, the “Higher Education Opportunity Act,” sponsored by Senators Vincent Sheheen, Harvey Peeler and others. Sen. Sheheen first introduced this bill last year, and there is broad agreement it will receive significant attention. There is a lot in the bill, including allocating internet sales tax revenues for a special fund for the public universities, in return for which they must cap tuition. It would also bring South Carolina back to a 7-point GPA system, which would reduce the number of students who currently qualify for state merit scholarships. It also increases the CHE Needs-based Scholarship program (of which independent colleges and universities receive 16.5 percent), and setting it and the Tuition Grants Program on a schedule whereby they would receive annual increases matching the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) but no more than 2.75 percent in a year.
This bill is at square one – there will be hearings held that will no doubt result in revisions to S.298. SCICU will be following this bill very closely to ensure that it properly reflects the needs of students attending independent colleges and universities in South Carolina.
Also driving this year’s session is $1 billion dollars – that’s how much additional funding the General Assembly has at its disposal. About half is in non-recurring “one-time” monies that must be spent on facilities or debt reduction. The other half is recurring – once it’s in the budget, it stays in future budgets. Legislators will tell you having more money is harder than a deficit – it’s much easier to say “no” to everyone than try to decide who gets the additional resources. How that $1 billion will be spent will occupy much of the legislators’ attention.
There’s also a new leadership position in the Senate. Because of a change in the state constitution approved by voters in 2012, the lieutenant governor is no longer elected, and thus cannot serve as the President of the Senate and rule on points of order and other procedural matters.
Under new rules approved by the Senate, the position of President of the Senate will now be held by a senator, and the position of President Pro Tempore, previously held by Sen. Hugh Leatherman, has been eliminated. Under the new rules the President of the Senate cannot be a committee chair. Sen. Leatherman opted to remain chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. Sen. Harvey Peeler was unanimously elected the first President of the Senate, and will have a role in the appointments to state boards and commissions.
The wild card in this year’s session may be Santee Cooper, the other owner of the abandoned VC Summer nuclear plant. While the General Assembly no longer needs to deal with the sale of SCANA, the governor would like to sell state-owned Santee Cooper, which holds $4 billion in debt from the failed plant. While the General Assembly has set criteria for weighing proposed buyers, the fate of Santee Cooper employees, and the utility’s ownership of Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, would have to be addressed.
I look forward to representing SCICU this session and will provide you with updates as the session progresses.