We only have three weeks of session left. While we will certainly return in June (and perhaps in the fall) to clean up additional matters, once we leave on Thursday, May 12th this session is over. The next two weeks will be extremely busy as the Senate tackles several issues, including the budget. Last week the Senate passed numerous bills, including an election bill (see below for the details) which became rather contentious.

I hope this Newsletter finds you well. The goal of this Newsletter is to keep you updated on what is happening in Columbia. If you have any questions or would like me to discuss a topic, please let me know.

Week in Review: April 18-April 22, 2022:

These are some of the bills that passed third reading in the Senate over the last week and were sent to the House (click on the link to see the text of the bill):

H.4919 - Elections and Voting Practices: If you have been reading anything related to the legislature over the past week you have undoubtedly read about the Senate's vote on elections. This bill has many plusses and is an excellent piece of legislation - except for one area that has created a good bit of disagreement between the Speaker of the House, the Governor, and the Senate.

So what does this bill do? To summarize, the bill that passed the Senate will:

  • Allow no-excuse early voting 14 days prior to a primary or general election, Monday thru Saturday from at least 8:30 am until 6:00 pm;
  • Allow no-excuse early voting 3 days prior to a runoff election;
  • Eliminates "fusion candidates". A fusion candidate is someone who runs for the same office using numerous party affiliations (think Democrat and Green Party);
  • Requires that a candidate only be on the ballot for one office;
  • Strengthens the law on absentee mail-in voting by,
  • Requiring any witness to be at least 18 years old;
  • Witness must print their name on the outer envelope;
  • The absentee voter must print the last 4 digits of their social security number on their ballot;
  • Limits the amount of absentee ballots a person can request to 10 (previously there was no limit);
  • Any person delivering absentee ballots must provide a current photo ID and must have a completed authorization form from the person for whom they are delivering the ballot;
  • Only those who are hospitalized, disabled, outside county of residence on election day may vote absentee (still allows those over 65 to vote absentee);
  • The Election Commission Director must conduct a voter registration list maintenance program every year using Bureau of Vital Statistics information which shall be provided monthly. Additionally, the DMV shall provide the Election Commission a list of non-residents to be used for purposes of accurate voter registration and voter roll clean-up;
  • Voting systems (i.e. machines) must comply with security protocol, including not having internet or wireless connection capability, may not have automatic adjustment functions, and must preserve a secure image of each ballot cast for 24 months;
  • Election audits (random) of precincts that must be made public;
  • No third-party groups may contribute funding to local election offices. If a group does contribute there may be no limits to the use of the funds, aka no strings attached, and the funds must be given to the State Election Commission (SEC) which will then distribute on a pro-rata basis to each County;
  • The President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House may intervene in any cases regarding challenges to an election;
  • Anyone found guilty of voter fraud is guilty of a felony and must be fined not less than $1,000 nor more than $5,000 and imprisoned no more than 5 years.

That is a quick summary of a bill that is extremely large. So what caused all of the problems you ask? Well, the Senate also included a provision that said the Senate would give advice and consent on the Elections Director and all members of the Election Commission. The Speaker of the House objected to the Senate doing that for Election Commission members and the Governor joined in that complaint. The SC GOP called this a poison pill in the legislation. A compromise was attempted (Amendment 10) which stated that the Senate would give advice and consent for the Elections Director, but that the Governor would appoint without any action by the Senate the Election Commission members. Both the Governor and the Speaker agreed to this compromise.

The Senate rejected that compromise with only 9 Senators voting for the amendment (if you look at the votes the motion was to table the Amendment - which means kill it - so a no vote means you supported the Amendment). I, along with Senators Kimbrell (R-Spartanburg), Climer (R-York), Adams (R-Berkeley), Shealy (R-Lexington), Loftis (R-Greenville), Fanning (D-Fairfield), Davis (R-Beaufort), and Reichenback (R-Florence) voted to not to table as we felt the compromise was the best way to accomplish meaningful election changes this year.

The Speaker of the House has publicly stated that without this Amendment the House will not consider this legislation. Additionally, the Governor has said he will veto this legislation without the Amendment. The Senate Majority Leader has also made a statement that the Senate did nothing wrong, and that if the parties want to negotiate, the House should take up the legislation. So what happens now?

The reality is that this election bill is more important than the disagreements that exist about how to supervise the Election Commission. While we certainly need oversight, it is my opinion that the Senate and House can share that role if needed. What is most important is that we pass meaningful changes to the election system.

In the two years I have served I have never seen either body refuse to go to Conference Committee to work out differences in legislation. I believe the Speaker is wrong to stop this legislation. I think the Governor is wrong to say he will veto this. I also think the SCGOP jumped the gun by calling this a "poison pill" as it really just calls for greater oversight - something I fully support. While I supported the Amendment (again I think this is too important not to pass), I fully support more oversight by the Senate in this process. Several compromises are being floated currently. The next few weeks will give us an indication of whether the Governor and the Speaker of the House really want an election bill or whether we are going to continue to argue amongst ourselves and stop good legislation. At the end of the day I voted in favor of this legislation (it passed unanimously in the Senate) because I believe in these much needed changes to the law. I will keep you updated.

These bills passed second reading and await a final third reading:

H.3037 - Medical Conditions Identification: This will allow the DMV to add a notation to a private passenger-carrying motor vehicle registration that the owner or occupant suffers from certain medical conditions. The persons may disclose the medical condition on a form prescribed by the department which includes a certification from a physician licensed in the State. The motor vehicle record of a driver may not contain more than three permanent medical conditions unless the person voluntarily discloses that they are autistic. The record of an identification card holder, including medical conditions, may be released under certain circumstances in accordance with state and federal law. This is a voluntary program and I voted in favor.
H.3606 - Residential Building Permit Requirements: In our effort to decrease regulations and restrictions on businesses, this bill exempts certain building improvements made to residential property from certain building permit requirements, and exempt owners who make such improvements from certain licensure requirements. A residential special contractor is exempt from Chapter 11 of the Code when the undertakings exceed five hundred dollars under certain circumstances. However, a residential special contractor is not authorized to construct additions to residential buildings or structures without supervision by a residential builder or other appropriately licensed person or entity. A residential specialty contractor is prohibited from undertaking work outside the scope of his license or registration, including employing, hiring, and contracting or subcontracting with others to perform such work on his behalf. The bill does not apply to owners of a residential property who improve the property for numerous purposes related to the building, electrical, gas, mechanical and plumbing and piping. I voted in favor.
H.3729 - Towing and Storage of Vehicles: If you have ever had your vehicle towed you know that the charges can be ridiculous. This legislation attempts to cap some of those fees by stating that storage and towing costs may be charged to the owner and lienholder of a vehicle found parked on private property, without permission, for a maximum period of fourteen days. Notice to an owner may be provided by certified mail with electronic tracking, and permits an owner to be determined through certain venders on a national title information search system. Before the article is sold, the proprietor, owner or operator of any towing company, storage facility or repair shop must apply to the appropriate titling facility the name and address of the owner or lienholder including, but not limited to, the DMV, a vender authorized by the DMV for this purpose, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System for vehicles not titled in South Carolina, and the Department of Natural Resources. I voted in favor.

Legislation on the Horizon:

H.3006 - Lunch Debts: This will stop the practice of certain school districts from using a debt collection service to collect for outstanding debts on a school lunch or breakfast account.

H.3144 - SC WINS Scholarship: A $2,500 scholarship is being created for students attending a two-year public technical college, majoring in a critical workforce area program. This is an annual $2,500 scholarship for up to three years. In order for a student to be eligible, they must be enrolled in at least six credit hours of instruction each semester, including three credit hours of instruction in one of the critical workforce areas defined by the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Educations (SBTCE); attempt 24 academic credit hours; and maintain a grade point average of 2.0 or better on a 4.0 scale. If the SC WINS scholarship is lost, it may be regained in a same manner as the Lottery Tuition Assistance Program scholarship is regained.

H.3591 - Educator Preparation Programs: under this bill the State Board of Education shall form a commission to conduct a detailed assessment of education data, and produce a report known as the “South Carolina Educator Preparation Report Card”. The report shall evaluate the ability of educator preparation programs, including alternative programs, to prepare teachers for success in South Carolina’s classrooms. The State Department of Education shall provide each college of education and educator preparation program with information regarding graduates annually before December. South Carolina is losing teachers every year. Often, young teachers are ill prepared for the challenges they will face in the classroom. The goal of this bill is to better track the programs at each university/college in South Carolina to determine the effectiveness of their programs.
H.3050 - Law Enforcement Accountability, Duties, and Standards: The intent of this legislation is to make comprehensive updates to law enforcement accountability, duties, and standards. The bill requires that non-certified law enforcement officers (LEOs) may only perform their duties when accompanied by a certified LEO. Failure to intervene when observing another officer physically or psychologically abusing members of the public or prisoners is grounds for Misconduct. A law enforcement agency shall make reports of misconduct to the Law Enforcement Training Council and is required to provide a representative for any allegation at scheduled hearing. The Council may impose civil fines to an agency for failure to comply at its direction not to exceed one thousand dollars per day. The bill bans the use of chokehold or carotid hold except as a justifiable means if the LEO believes the use of deadly force is necessary to protect the life of civilian or an LEO. Excessive force of an unjustified hold shall be deemed excessive force and may result in criminal prosecution. The Council shall develop and implement curriculum to address lawful holds and set minimum standards for all law enforcement agencies related to vehicle pursuit standards, duty to intervene, hiring and terminating practices, field training, body-worn cameras, ‘no knock’ warrants, and others.
H.3939 - First Responder Workers’ Compensation: Currently a law enforcement officer who suffers psychological injuries while on the job (and does not have an accompanying physical injury) is not entitled to receive Workers' Compensation benefits. This bill attempts to change that by defining certain instances when law enforcement and first responders may receive limited benefits. This bill requires that the first responder go through one of two existing psychological programs and fully exhaust those remedies before they can seek additional medical care under the Workers' Compensation Act. The Sherriff's Association, the Firefighters' Association, the Municipal Association, the Association of Counties, and the Injured Workers' Association have all agreed to this compromise.
H.4075 - Sex-Offender Registry: Last year the South Carolina Supreme Court struck down some of the provisions of our existing sex-offender registry. This bill attempts to clean up some of that language and to ensure that those on the registry remain on it.
H.4161 - Gaming Machines: In the upstate there is a company that manufactures gaming machines. Under current law, they are not allowed to completely build those machines out and must do so in another state (current law outlaws operational gaming machines). This will allow a company to develop, manufacture, process, sell, possess, or transport gaming equipment by a gaming equipment manufacturer authorized to do business in the State of South Carolina. The manufacturer is required to register with the Secretary of State’s Office, the United States Department of Justice Gambling Device Registration Unit and be in good standing.
H.4601 - Ambulance Service: This will require that every county in South Carolina ensure that there is an ambulance service operating within the county. This service may be a county service, public, private, or nonprofit, and may enter into intergovernmental agreements or other agreements with hospitals or health care facilities. A governing body of a county may adopt and enforce reasonable regulations to control the provisions of private or nonprofit ambulance service.

The Budget:

This week the South Carolina Senate will take up the budget. We will appropriate approximately $12.6 billion in spending. There will be $1 billion in income tax rebates and another $1 billion in tax cuts (as I discussed previously). The Senate plan gives a pay raise to state employees (3%) - but removes the $1,500 one-time bonus that was in the House plan. It gives teachers a pay raise, again, not as large as the House plan. There are many other provisions of this bill that I will detail next week.

Former Vice-President Mike Pence in Rock Hill:

For those of you who are interested, former Vice-President Mike Pence will be in Rock Hill on Thursday, May 5th at Lakewood Baptist Church for the National Day of Prayer ceremony at noon. I, along with Senator Josh Kimbrell and Senator Wes Climer, will be in attendance with the Vice-President. If you have not had the opportunity to meet Vice-President Pence, I would encourage you to attend. The address for Lakewood Baptist Church is 3520 Mt. Gallant Rd, Rock Hill. The event is open to the public (tickets are not needed) and I would encourage you to be there early as we are expecting a crowd.

Thank you for believing in me and allowing me to represent District 16 in Columbia. Again, if you have any questions, or you hear something and have a question, give me a call. My personal cell number is 803-984-0126.

Thank you again for everything,

Michael Johnson