SC lawmakers seek oversight on gov’s emergency declarations
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Some lawmakers Wednesday called for a more comprehensive plan to manage the coronavirus pandemic, including legislative oversight of the string of emergency declarations issued by Gov. Henry McMaster since mid-March.
“How long will these limitations last? Is there a case number we should be looking for? Maybe hospitalizations, is that what we are looking at?” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said in a floor speech. “What’s the goal? Is there a goal? What do South Carolinians need to achieve for life to return to normal?”
Massey said a review should include examining the law that empowers a governor to declare a state of emergency but technically requires legislative approval to extend one. McMaster has issued 13 separate declarations - each lasting 15 days. They often have incorporated circumstances from previous orders, but he has not sought extension permission from the General Assembly, arguing that each one is distinct and doesn’t require approval.
Given the enduring nature of the pandemic - which has infected more than 130,000 and killed almost 3,000 people in the state of 5 million so far - Massey and other Republicans on Wednesday argued that the law needs to be clarified. Lawmakers also pointed out that the General Assembly isn’t in session for more than half the year, so requiring lawmakers to approve an emergency declaration every 15 days likely is not feasible.
“Our emergency statutes are clearly designed for natural disasters of limited duration,” Massey said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin said members of his committee would look at the emergency declaration provision when the new session starts in January.
Massey also said lawmakers need to carefully watch over state agencies, praising workers at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control but pointing out the agency has been without a director for five months, and lawmakers have not been updated on any progress in searching for a new one. The governor’s office didn’t immediately comment on the speeches.
Lawmakers are in Columbia over the next two weeks to consider a variety of pandemic-related measures. On Tuesday, senators passed changes to the state budget that would provide a small raise to most teachers and a hazard pay bonus for some lower-paid state workers. The chamber also set aside $425 million from federal COVID-19 funds to repay the fund that doles out unemployment benefits, on top of an existing $500 million already put toward the fund.
In another outbreak-related measure, McMaster was set Wednesday to sign a bill allowing all voters to cast absentee ballots in the November election, a measure his spokesman called “a good balance between protecting South Carolinians and the integrity of the voting process.
According to a survey released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University, 72% of likely South Carolina voters said they planned to vote in-person on Election Day.
Some activists are taking objections over virus-related restrictions directly to lawmakers. On Tuesday, about 50 people affiliated with conservative organizations including the Greenville TEA Party and South Carolina Patriots for Liberty — bearing U.S. flags and nearly all unmasked — took to the Statehouse steps. They called on government leaders to end the gathering and business restrictions and mask mandates.
Many of the rally participants didn’t wear face coverings as they gathered outside. But about a dozen of those unmasked people also entered the Statehouse, a building covered under an executive order from McMaster that mandates face coverings in state government buildings.
Asked about enforcement of the ordinance, officials with the Bureau of Protective Services - the agency responsible for law enforcement on Statehouse grounds - said those visitors claimed health-related exemptions, which broadly covers people “with a physical, mental, or behavioral health condition or disability” that prevents wearing a face covering.
Under the order, people claiming this exemption “should not be required to produce documentation or any other form of proof of such a condition.”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.
Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.