Week in Review: March 14-18, 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):

S.2 - Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) Restructuring. The pandemic showed us that DHEC cannot serve dual roles. The agency is currently attempting to manage health issues while also dealing with all environmental issues. This creates an issue with the Director typically having to split time between competing factions. Under this bill, DHEC will be split in to two agencies: the Department of Environmental Services and the Department of Behavioral and Public Health. The Department of Environmental Services will primarily be responsible for the state hydrology program, the aquatic nuisance species program, and environmental functions previously served by DHEC. The Department of Behavioral and Public Health will primarily house duties of the Division of Mental Health, the Division of Public Health, and the Division of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. Additionally the Division of Food Safety (except shellfish) will fall under the Department of Agriculture and the veterans’ homes program will be under the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. I voted in favor of this bill.

S.230 - Minors Engaged in Trafficking. This states that minors engaged in commercial sexual activity or trafficking are presumed to be doing so under coercion. As a result, the minor can claim this as a defense to any criminal charges. Additionally, anyone who has previously been convicted who falls in to this category may have their record expunged. I voted in favor of this legislation.

S.460 - Office of the State Fire Marshal. Once passed this bill will restructure the Office of the State Fire Marshal. It will give the State Fire Marshal jurisdiction and authority over enforcement of laws and ordinances; prevention of fires; storage, sale and use of combustibles; installation and maintenance of fire alarm systems; fire extinguishers; egress from all buildings on a statewide basis. I voted in favor of this legislation.

S.812 - Practice of Certified Public Accountants. This will update the practices for CPAs in this State. It amended who can be on the CPA Board, and attempts to make it easier for a CPA to gain reciprocity to practice in South Carolina.

S.992 - Neonatal Testing. This places additional safeguards to make sure that the information obtained from neonatal testing is kept confidential. It also will require that at the time the information is provided to a child's physician, that the Department of Health and Environmental Control shall refer the child for the necessary specialist for follow-up services including treatment, counseling and education.

S.1011 - Parkinson's Disease Research Collection. This will authorize the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) to collect data on Parkinson’s disease. The bill provides that information collected and disseminated be done under the direction of the CEO of MUSC. All patients shall be notified about the database and be permitted to participate if they chose. MUSC shall establish a Parkinson’s Disease Database Advisory Committee, provide notification of mandatory reporting, and ensure that all information collected remain confidential, coded to maintain privacy and not discoverable. The hope is that this database can be used to track those suffering with Parkinson's Disease to receive the most up to date information regarding disease testing, diagnosis, and treatment.

S.1087 - Comprehensive Tax Cut Act of 2022. I wrote about this tax relief bill several weeks ago. Again to recap, it reduces the top rates of 7% and 6% to 5.7% beginning in tax year 2022. It also eliminates income tax on military retirement income beginning in tax year 2022.

While those changes are significant, it also address property taxes on manufacturers. While campaigning for this office I would often say that America, and specifically South Carolina, needs to manufacture goods here - not overseas. Unfortunately, manufacturers are one of the most highly taxed entities in our state. This bill will bring their property tax rate down from 9% to 6%. This is a major step towards meaningful tax relief. This will also make South Carolina more competitive against our neighbors and bring jobs to this State.

Lastly, this bill returns one billion dollars in the form of a one-time Taxpayer Rebate for those who file a return for tax year 2021. Each rebate will be equal to the taxpayer's liability. The minimum rebate for each taxpayer would be $100 and the maximum rebate allowed would be $700. Those funds will go out before December 31, 2021. In total, the bill creates approximately $1 billion in recurring tax relief and $1 billion in nonrecurring tax relief. I, along with every member of the Senate, voted in favor of this bill.

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

S.888 - Contractor's Voluntary Contribution. This is a piece of legislation that I filed in December of last year. I proposed a bill that would allow any building science, construction management, or civil engineer to voluntarily give $25 while renewing their contractor's license. Those funds will go directly to colleges/universities that teach those degree programs. This is mirrored after similar legislation in Alabama and Florida. In Alabama, this raises over $800,000 annually for scholarships and degree enhancements.

If passed, this bill would benefit Clemson University, The Citadel, the University of South Carolina, and South Carolina State University. A person renewing their license may either give to one of these universities specifically or designate that the funds be split between the universities based on enrollment in the degree program. Being that I was the primary sponsor of this legislation, I voted in favor.

S.1106 - General Reserve Fund Increase. This is a joint resolution to propose an Amendment to the South Carolina Constitution to increase the State General Reserve Fund from five (5%) percent of the general fund revenue of the last fiscal year to seven (7%) percent. It will also allow the Capital Reserve fund to be increased from two (2%) percent to three (3%) percent of the general revenue from the latest fiscal year. If adopted, this would allow the State to place more in reserve funds. Ultimately, any Constitutional amendment would have to be approved by the voters of this State.

H.4944 - Coastal Carolina Board Notices. This will require the Coastal Carolina University Board of Trustees to send notices of time and place of all meetings of the board electronically or through the US Mail not less than five days before each meeting.

Legislation on the Horizon:

These bills are either currently in Committee or will soon be on the floor to be debated and voted on.

S.1095 - Clemson University Regulatory Powers. One of the many duties that Clemson University has is to assist with agriculture. In doing so, Clemson will issue numerous regulations - often while the legislature is not in session. This bill will require that Clemson University's organization and powers over regulations promulgated by the Division of Regulatory and Public Service Programs be in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act. That is a long way to say that Clemson can issue regulations to ban the Bradford pear tree, but they must appear before the SC Senate as soon as we return to session to have us approve the regulation. If we are in session, they must immediately come to us.

S.295 - Denial of License Based on Criminal Conviction. This bill will allow those with prior convictions be allowed to obtain professional licenses unless the conviction is directly tied to the duties and responsibilities for the occupation or license being sought.

H.3037 - Medical Conditions Identification. This will allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to add notations on a vehicle registration that the owner or occupant suffers from certain medical conditions. A person providing medical certification may request the department to notate a health condition such as neurological disorder, brain injury, a neuroimmune condition, mental illness or disorder that causes seizures. A person with autism may request the department to add “AUT” as a medical condition. 

H.3729 - Towing and Storage of Vehicles. If passed this will allow storage and towing costs to be charged to the owner and lienholder of a vehicle found parked on private property without permission. 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. 

H.4177 - Waterfowl Program Manager. A bill to provide that the Chief of Wildlife shall establish a Statewide Waterfowl Program Manager. The duties shall include, but not be limited to, managing all aspects of waterfowl and wetland management; manage conservation and waterfowl habitat that is titled or licensed to the department; supervise all waterfowl management activities; and coordinate with regional personnel on management activities. The bill additionally establishes the Waterfowl Advisory Committee to assist in the development, protection, and propagation of waterfowl in the State. Additionally, the bill increases fees for migratory waterfowl permits, and addresses revenues from the sale of tags, permits, and more for resident and nonresident permits. 

S.90 - Separate Confinement of Juvenile Offenders. This is a joint resolution to call for an amendment to the South Carolina Constitution. This would require that prisons and jails in South Carolina house inmates 18 years old and younger separately from adults. Currently the Constitution uses language that allows 18 years olds to be housed with adult inmates. If passed, this would go to the voters of this State for approval.

S.366 - Medical Treatment and Supplies. This bill deals with the Workers' Compensation Act. It will allow injured workers and their employers to submit medical evidence without the requirement of evidence law applying. The goal is to streamline the process and reduce the taking of doctors' depositions.

S.471 - Jury Voir Dire. Currently in South Carolina the questioning of jurors by lawyers in civil cases is limited. This would allow plaintiff and defense attorneys to submit a series of questions, 7 days prior to the trial, and then ask potential jurors those questions during pretrial.

S.1031 - Register of Deeds. This will would place requirements on those who act as the Register of Deeds. In order to qualify a person must be a citizen of the United States and the State; be a qualified elector of the county; hold a four-year bachelor’s degree or have at least four years experience in law, real estate, or accounting, or as an employee in the Register of Deeds office; and not have a pattern of failing to properly record in a time and manner recognized in the Code. This bill was filed to address an over 4-month backlog in the Register of Deeds office in Charleston County.

S.1092 - Law Enforcement Officer Training. A detention or correction officer will only have to be eighteen years of age in order to qualify. Finding people willing to serve as detention and correction officers is extremely difficult. Other states allow people as young as eighteen to serve in that position and the hope is that more of these jobs will be filled.

S.935 - Education Scholarship Accounts:

In the past few weeks the Senate Education Committee passed out S. 935, which would create Education Savings Accounts (ESA). In order to be eligible to receive funding an eligible student must:

  • be a state resident;
  • have attended an SC public school the prior school year, or be age 5 on or before September 1st; and
  • meet one of the following additional criteria: 
  • Medicaid eligible;
  • Attends a school most recently rated unsatisfactory, or one which earned a report card rating of below average or a combination of below average and unsatisfactory for 3 of the past 5 years;
  • Has an IEP;
  • Received an ESA scholarship the prior year; or
  • Has a sibling in the same household who receives an ESA scholarship.

Beginning in school year 2023-24, the number of students that may be approved for a scholarship will be capped at 5,000 and over a three year period it will increase to 15,000 students. In order to participate in the ESA program a parent will have to:

  • Submit the standard application and required documentation (and annually thereafter);
  • ­Sign an agreement annually agreeing to comply with all provisions, including not to participate in homeschooling or to enroll their child full-time in the resident public school district; and
  • For a child with a disability acknowledgement of an understanding of any rights being given up under IDEA. 

The ESA agreement terminates automatically if the child is no longer domiciled in SC, and funds revert to the ESA Fund. A parent/guardian will have access of roughly $7,000 annually to use for tuition and fees of approved services providers/schools, instructional materials, tutoring services provided by the State Department of Education, contracted services approved by the Department, technological devices, certain examination fees, educational services for students with disabilities, approved contract services from public school districts, transportation (up to $750), and account management funds. So where is the $7,000 coming from you ask? Excellent question.

The $7,000 (I am hearing it may be reduced to $6,000) comes out of the money that the State gives local school districts on a per pupil basis. To make this a bit easier, school districts receive funding from basically three sources - local (property tax), state and federal. If a child is eligible for the ESA Fund then basically the $7,000 that would have gone to the school district is redirected to the fund, and then on to the service provider/school. The local and federal funding would remain with the school district. Will that decrease the amount of money schools have? Again, an excellent question.

The answer to that question depends on how you look at it. Yes, the district will receive $7,000 less if a child qualifies for an ESA. So the district will have $7,000 less to spend. On the other hand, the district no longer has to teach that child or provide any services to that child. Additionally, the district, who is no longer providing those services to the child, gets to keep the local money and federal money - which means that in theory the district will have more money to spend on a per pupil basis.

In order to have accountability (and to be able to compare progress) the following measures have been put in place:

  • students in grades 3 – 12 must complete the same assessments as public school students, at no cost to the school or students;
  • annual documentation of academic progress for each student;
  • service providers providing full-time instruction to administer norm-referenced test; 
  • Providers may be removed if they fail to provide individual test score data from previous year, and may be barred if fail to comply with provisions or do not provide student with the services funded; and
  • Specifies provider and parental expectations for ensuring assessments are administered, and that test results are collected and reported.

Currently, eight states have some form of ESA accounts. Those include Arizona, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana and New Hampshire. I have been able to do some research on the ESA program in Arizona.

First, Arizona has a population of 7.2 million people vs. South Carolina's population of 5.2 million. In the second quarter of 2021, 9,718 students were receiving ESA type scholarships in Arizona. When you break that population down by eligible category (I only compared categories that exist in the current Senate bill) it looks like this:

  • Special Needs - 59%
  • Sibling receiving ESA funds - 15%
  • Attending a Failing School - 5%
  • Previously in ESA Program - 1%
  • Other - 20% (includes Military, legally blind/deaf, residing on reservation)

Based on this data, it would appear that the vast majority of students who use ESA type programs in Arizona are special needs students. As of today, S.935 does not use "special needs" as a category - however it does use IEP (Individualized Education Plan) as a criteria. I am attempting to determine how much overlap exists between those two categories in Arizona. I also want to insure that students who are truly special needs can have access to the ESA and that the service providers/schools must accept them.

If we assume that less than 10,000 students use ESA scholarships in Arizona, it makes sense that less than 10,000 would use them in South Carolina (which has a about 2 million less people). Another state which has an ESA plan is Florida. In Florida over 106,000 students are enrolled in the program (Florida has a population of 21.4 million people. I could not find documentation breaking down the specific eligibility categories - like Arizona - but I was able to find the following information for the breakdown based on student race and ethnicity:

  • Hispanic - 38%
  • African-American - 29%
  • White - 27%
  • Other - 6%

Additionally, 66% of all Florida ESA eligible students attend a religious private school, while 34% attend non-religious private schools.

So what does all this mean? Quite simply it means that I am studying this bill and trying to make the best decision that I can. The Fort Mill School District and the Lancaster County School District both do well academically. I don't believe we will see a massive outflow of students (and tax dollars attached to them) from local schools to service providers/schools. However, there are areas of our State where children have very few education opportunities. Poverty is rampant, and drop-out rates soar well over 50%. Those children deserve an opportunity to succeed.

Some will say that more money is needed in those districts. I disagree. By example I would point out that the Fort Mill School District (based on numbers provided by the SC Department of Education) spends about $9,962 per pupil. The Lancaster School District spends about $10,524 per pupil. In contrast, one of the worst performing Districts in our State, the McCormick County School District, spends $18,119 in per pupil funding. Another district, less than a 30 minute drive down I-77 is the Fairfield County School District which spends $19,370 per pupil. To highlight the contrast between these districts here are some quick stats:

Percentage of Students who Meet or Exceed Grade Level Expectations in English Language Arts:

Fairfield County School District - 31%
Fort Mill School District - 67.7%
Lancaster County School District - 42.4%
McCormick County School District - 16%

Percentage of Students who Meet or Exceed Grade Level Expectations in Math:

Fairfield County School District - 25.1%
Fort Mill School District - 64.9%
Lancaster County School District - 41.5%
McCormick County School District - 13.8%

Students in the Graduation Cohort who are College or Career Ready:

Fairfield County School District - 46.3%
Fort Mill School District - 83.2%
Lancaster County School District - 57.7%
McCormick County School District - 41.5%

That data alone paints a picture of students who are not able to reach their potential. There are numerous reasons for this - the main one being poverty. But even with additional funds our schools aren't producing the desired outcome - that a student can achieve at an adequate level and is either ready to go to college or begin a career track.

I would love to receive your feedback on this issue. If you are interested where I got this data you can look HERE and HERE. I don't think it is simply black or white or easy. This is complicated with multiple layers. I look forward to hearing from you.

New Indy:

Last Thursday I met with the Director of DHEC, Dr. Edward Simmer, as well as Myra Reece, the Director of Environmental Affairs. I again expressed my unhappiness with the EPA's Consent Decree (which I recognize DHEC cannot change) and asked them to step up their investigation of New Indy. Ultimately, everyone would benefit from the investigation ending and both DHEC and New Indy pivoting to clean-up and prevention. In response to that meeting DHEC issued a press release that you can read HERE.

In essence, DHEC urged "the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to expedite the process of determining whether it will proceed with a Consent Decree with New Indy." Additionally, Dr. Simmer stated, “For too long, residents of North and South Carolina who live near the facility have been enduring undesirable levels of odors that are impacting their quality of lives. It is imperative that a decisive action be taken to end the harm being done to the community.”

I intend to meet with DHEC officials again to continue to push for a resolution to this matter. I will keep you updated on those efforts.

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