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Your SC politics briefing

·10 min read

Welcome to your weekly South Carolina politics briefing, a newsletter curated by The State’s politics and government team.

First, the breaking news of the day. Vice President Kamala Harris is returning to South Carolina in her official capacity, the first visit back since dropping out of the Democratic presidential contest, to help jump start the White House’s goal to get 70% of US adults vaccinated by July 4. We know she will be in Greenville on Monday, but have no idea when and where.

Here’s what dropped this week.

Today, this week, next week and let’s be honest every year, we’re talking about money — and a lot of it.

The Legislature returned to Columbia this week, with the SC House revising its plan over how it wants to spend $10.7 billion of state money. It’s the House’s second budget of the session, this time with higher projected revenues from state economists.

It includes $89 million worth of earmarks and $90 million to make security upgrades to SC’s prison system.

The House also included $3 million for the state’s mental health agency for initiatives in response to the Jamal Sutherland death while in the custody at the Charleston County jail. And to help clean up roadway litter, the House added $8 million.

But the BIG winner? State employees, who will get a 3% pay bump. The Senate had put in 2% raise for state employees.

That’ll be worked out over the next week or so by six lawmakers (three from the House, three from the Senate) who will negotiate spending here and there and then come back to Columbia to pass the budget before July 1.

All rise: SC judges hand out rulings on executions, sex offenders

South Carolina is on the verge of conducting its first execution in about a decade.

You’ll recall the Legislature changed the law, making the electric chair the default method since lethal injection drugs aren’t available. The other option is firing squad, but the state’s prisons department isn’t ready for that quite yet.

Two death row inmates — Brad Sigmon and Freddie Owens — have exhausted their appeals but have ping-ponged between the courts this month to delay their executions scheduled for later this week.

First, Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman denied requests from their attorneys to stay the execution, saying their claims had “little likelihood of success.” Fresh off of that defeat, lawyers headed to a federal court in Florence County to argue over whether the state had more humane execution options to offer the inmates and whether the electric chair violates the Eighth Amendment.

A federal judge has yet to rule, but should he ultimately deny their push, Sigmon will be executed next Friday.

And South Carolina’s high court ruled this week that a state law requiring sex offenders to register for life, without judicial review, is unconstitutional. The SC Supreme Court has given the Legislature a 12-month timeline to “correct the deficiency in the statute regarding judicial review.”

Third guilty plea in VC Summer case

Carl Churchman, a former Westinghouse executive who oversaw construction on SCANA’s doomed $10 billion nuclear project, admitted lying about the project in an effort to fool people into thinking the project would be a success.

Churchman, who now lives in Utah, was the third person so far to plead guilty in an ongoing four-year FBI investigation of criminal acts connected to the 2017 failure of SCANA’s effort to build two nuclear plants at the VC Summer facility in Fairfield County.

‘No confidence’ in DJJ director

A Senate panel looking into a scathing audit on the state’s department that houses juvenile offenders voiced their displeasure with Director Freddie Pough’s leadership after a four-hour hearing where current and former employees testified about their experiences working at the agency.

“The proof’s in the pudding,” said Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who has repeatedly asked Pough to resign.

The vote of no confidence comes less than a week after employees walked off the job in protest over working conditions.

The vote of “no confidence” is more symbolic than anything, but is a sign from senators to Gov. Henry McMaster that he needs to find someone else to put in his place. The Legislature can make life hard for any agency director, but the Senate in particular has voting powers over the governor’s Cabinet picks.

Stay tuned.

Santee Cooper drama winds down

After four years of long debates and lobbying over what to do with Santee Cooper, lawmakers concluded their efforts to overhaul how the state-owned agency operates.

The plan, passed by the General Assembly and sent to the governor, includes increased oversight on when Santee Cooper wants to build new electric generation, borrow large amounts of money and when it looks to raise rates.

Also, the reform plans would force replacement of all but one of the current board members. But it doesn’t include a process where lawmakers can consider offers from potential buyers for all or part of the electric utility.

It’s something House members and Gov. Henry McMaster wanted in the reform plan. Now the bill is on McMaster’s desk for his consideration, and he hasn’t said what he’ll do with the legislation.

“I want to read it first, but as you know I believe the only way Santee Cooper will be able to survive is through a sale,” McMaster said.

Murdaugh family saga

Much is still unknown in the double murders of Paul Murdaugh and his mother, Maggie.

It’s a wild story that touches on every theme in South Carolina: crime, politics, small towns.

Both members of the prominent Hampton family were killed early this week, and police have remained tight lipped.

Maggie was the wife of prominent attorney Alex Murdaugh, a senior member of the South Carolina powerhouse Murdaugh law firm, headquartered in Hampton. Paul Murdaugh was Alex and Maggie Murdaugh’s son and a student at the University of South Carolina.

Also, remember Paul was involved in the fatal 2019 boat crash that killed Mallory Beach. He was facing three felony counts of boating under the influence in the crash near Parris Island that killed 19-year-old Beach and injured others on board.

He had pleaded not guilty.

Late Thursday, the patriarch of the prominent Murdaugh family and former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III died at his home.

Murdaugh, who was ill at the time of his death, was 81.

He was the eldest member of the Murdaugh family, a powerhouse legal family, three generations of whom have been prosecutors.

Buzz Bites

The SC Supreme Court set a 12-month timeline for the Legislature to “correct the deficiency in the statute regarding judicial review” after the high court ruled this week that a state law requiring sex offenders to register for life, without prior judicial review, is unconstitutional, The Associated Press reported.

Police reform talks are still ongoing in DC, with Republican US Sen. Tim Scott holding a prime seat at the table in those negotiations. Here’s the latest from the Wall Street Journal.

South Carolina’s beer and wine curbside pick up is no more after Gov. McMaster declined to extend the state of emergency. There may be a good chance it returns. The House added an amendment to the budget to give the curbside option another go for a year. There’s also a bill floating around the State House that would make that permanent.

US Rep. Jeff Duncan says his annual Faith and Freedom BBQ is back officially on Aug. 23. Speakers have not been announced yet.

“Not just yes, but hell yes,” US House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn told reporters from the Charleston Post and Courier when asked whether he plans to run for reelection in 2022.

Lawmakers want to break up the state’s health and environmental department, a mammoth-sized state agency that has been under the legislative microscope for years but drew renewed attention during COVID-19. Now, an eclectic group that included health officials, environmental advocates and business, industry and governmental interests are meeting to figure out the best course of action to ensure vital services are reaching South Carolinians.

The city of Columbia has established a committee to advise the City Council on issues facing the LGBTQ community.

South Carolina is no longer under a state of emergency because of COVID-19. Gov. Henry McMaster announced he has no plans to extend the state order after it expired over the weekend.

South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick is joining Republican Party chairmen from Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — all early-voting states in the presidential primary contest — to keep the nominating schedule as is.

Former US Ambassador and Gov. Nikki Haley is headed to Israel for a solidarity trip to “meet with leaders representing various viewpoints across the Israeli political spectrum,” reports The Forward’s Jacob Kornbluh.

Columbia Police Department is hiring an attorney who will work as a special assistant US attorney assigned to the US Attorney’s office for the specific purpose of prosecuting federal gun crimes that are investigated by Columbia police.

A Lexington County man with links to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Proud Boys group will be sentenced later this month on charges connected to threatening a former federal prosecutor.

Former SC Rep. Gary Clary is back in the robe. The Upstate Republican was elected by Clemson University’s board to serve as the school’s chief municipal judge, The Greenville News reports.

Those who are receiving unemployment assistance can now enroll for free in job training programs at the state’s technical colleges through a partnership with Department of Employment and Workforce.

US Sen. Lindsey Graham lauded President Biden’s plan to distribute 500 million COVID-19 vaccine doses across the world.

“I support the effort of the Biden Administration to donate vaccines to at-risk populations throughout the world and hope other countries will follow America’s lead. I believe this to be a good investment by the American taxpayer. The roughly $3.5 billion required to purchase and distribute 500 million doses of vaccine will help prevent a reemergence of the COVID-19 virus which makes America and the world safer.

Mark your calendar

June 14

SC Education Oversight Committee meeting, 1 p.m.

June 15-16

Six SC House, Senate members meet to hash out budget differences

June 21

Electricity Market Reform Measures Study Committee, 11:30 a.m.

SC Legislature returns to take up budget conference report, noon

July 1

South Carolina’s gas tax goes up another 2 cents, the fifth of six installments

Before we adjourn

Do you know the story of Narciso Gonzales, the editor-in-chief and one of The State’s founders who was shot and killed by Lt. Gov. James Tillman in 1903? You’ve probably passed by the historical marker near the State House dedicated to Gonzales and one of the most significant historical moments in South Carolina’s history.

Now, you can listen to that story from 14 Heathwood Hall students, whose podcast was picked up by NPR as part of a student-led podcast challenge and features interviews with our own veteran courts and politics reporter John Monk and metro reporter Travis Bland.

Who pulled together this week’s newsletter?

This week it was reporter Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter), who leads The State’s State House team, covering politics, elections and more. You can keep up with her on Twitter and send her tips on Twitter at @MaayanSchechter or by email mschechter@thestate.com.

Make sure to sign up for our weekly politics newsletter that will come straight to your inbox every Friday morning. Tell your friends to do the same. For even more South Carolina-focused political news, you can chat with us on Facebook at the Buzz on South Carolina Politics, email us tips at thebuzz [at] thestate [dot] com and follow our stories at scpolitics.com.

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