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TAX REBATES, ELECTION REFORMS HIGHLIGHT STATE LEGISLATIVE SESSION

BY MARK E. LETT

Sweeping election reforms —approved unanimously — by state lawmakers were part of this year’s state legislative session.

State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort County, said the efforts of Hilton Head resident Xiaodan Li and a group of Lowcountry citizen activists was instrumental in clearing the air — and clearing a path — for members of both parties to come together around election upgrades.

“Mutual respect carried the day in South Carolina,” she said. “That makes for good government, no matter where you are.”

Lowcountry residents sent lawmakers hundreds of e-mails advocating improvements, and Li met with the leaders of the House and Senate to press the suggestions.

Bottom line: The SC Election Reform Act “makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” said State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.

Among other features, the SC election measure calls for:

  • Early, in-person voting before elections, available to registered voters without requiring an excuse or reason to vote early, but expected to show photo ID;
  • Tightened qualifications for mail-in ballots;
  • Expanded time for election workers to open mail-in ballots;
  • Elevating voter fraud to a felony.

Early voting turnout proved popular in Beaufort County and statewide. Nearly 8,000 (7,858) Beaufort County voters participated in early voting ahead of the June primary election, according to the state-run SCVotes.gov. The county trailed only Horry-Myrtle Beach (11,618) and Richland-Columbia (9,346). Statewide, 100,450 voters took advantage of the early voting period that ended June 10.

Among the new laws in South Carolina of special significance to Lowcountry citizens:

Taxes

The General Assembly approved a $14 billion spending plan that calls for reduced tax rates and rebates for many South Carolinians. The package affects about one-third of the state’s taxpayers, with some households receiving rebates of as much as $800 in the fourth quarter of this year. The Legislature also approved an immediate top income tax rate reduction to 6.5 percent from 7 percent.

Veterans

The Palmetto State could become even more attractive to military retirees thanks to the Legislature’s plan to exempt military retirement from state income taxes.

The measure sailed through the House and Senate, making the South Carolina “a more competitive state for veterans to live and work,” according to the SC Department of Veterans affairs.

I-95

Sen. Davis said the spending plan approved by the General Assembly will enable the state to access and “leverage” federal infrastructure funds. Lowcountry priorities include water and sewer projects and road improvements to support an array of developments in Jasper County, where development of an international port is anticipated. Davis said the Legislature’s action also clears the way for I-95 to be expanded to six lanes to Walterboro from the Georgia-South Carolina border. Work on the expansion likely will begin in late 2023, Davis said.

Measures that did not pass the legislative session:

Medical Marijuana

An effort to legalize medical marijuana – led by Sen. Davis – died in the House when it was blocked on procedural grounds. A bill originally advanced by Davis called for permitting patients with qualifying conditions to buy and possess cannabis from licensed dispensaries. The measure did not allow for home cultivation.

Davis called his measure a “very conservative version” and pledged to “resume this legislative push next year.”

USC Board

There were no changes to how the University of South Carolina is governed. A proposal to restructure the university’s board of trustees died in the Senate, where opponents essentially ran out the clock at the end of the session.

A call for change was pushed by a group of lawmakers who considered trustees arrogant and inept. Among their complaints: the hiring and departure of a university president who lasted less than two years. Among the unhappy proponents of change was Columbia Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who said failure to restructuring meant “the university will continue to be mismanaged.”

Hate Crimes

The Senate declined to decide a House-passed measure to toughen penalties for criminals guilty of hate-fueled crimes. Memories of mass murders at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were insufficient to bring the Clementa C. Pinckney Hate Crime Bill to a vote in the Senate. The bill was named for the Rev. Pinckney, a state senator and pastor at the church, who was shot to death with eight parishioners in 2015.