COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Legislation focused on education, healthcare and criminal justice issues will likely be among the first bills under debate at the South Carolina State House this year.
For one of them, that debate has already started on the Senate floor.
Senators began their debate on a bill to establish a school voucher program in South Carolina, on Tuesday.
The “Education Scholarship Account” legislation passed in both the House and the Senate last year but in different forms, with the chambers approving different details like caps on enrollment and eligibility requirements.
It fell short of becoming law in the closing hours of the legislative session over a disagreement about whether students receiving this money would be required to take the same statewide test public school students do, as an accountability measure to see if this state-funded program is working.
The bill, as currently written, would give families $6,000 from state funding to send their kids to private school, paying for tuition, books and supplies, and transportation to and from school, among other approved uses.
Those students would have to be eligible for Medicaid or have an IEP to qualify, and then their siblings would qualify as well.
“What real option are we giving them? Are we gonna let Johnny in Bamberg drive to Richland County?” Sen. Nikki Setzler, D - Lexington, said during Tuesday’s debate. “Give me a break. The chances of that are rare, and in rural areas, the private schools are struggling.”
“I know that there will be students that, if this program is in place, that they will benefit from it. It will be the option, and it’s giving that family some options that otherwise don’t have options,” Sen. Greg Hembree, R - Horry and chair of the Senate Education Committee, responded.
Senators faced criticism for not taking any public testimony on the voucher bill this year before advancing it to the Senate floor last week, which lawmakers usually do.
But they defended that, saying they have been vetting this bill for years and took several hours of testimony on it as recently as last year.
With the Education Scholarship Account bill only introduced Tuesday, debate will continue Wednesday, when amendments are expected to be proposed.
Once that debate is done, the next bill on the docket in the Senate would repeal South Carolina’s certificate of need law.
Under that, hospitals and clinics have to get approval from the state to build or expand.
The state’s hospital association has said this law should be amended but not totally thrown out.
But supporters of the repeal argue keeping this law in place keeps healthcare out of many counties.
“Right now, I think we need to do something radically different to ensure more opportunities for healthcare access in rural South Carolina,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R - Edgefield, said.
The Senate also plans to get to work soon on criminal justice legislation, including bills to toughen up South Carolina’s catch-and-release bail practices and fentanyl laws.
“We tried this over the last couple years. We’ve got to push this across the finish line this year. Too many people are dying, and they’re dying from things they didn’t even know was hitting them,” Massey said.
Committees in both the Senate and the House of Representatives will hold hearings Thursday in Columbia to take public testimony for the first time this year on those fentanyl-related bills.
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