By PHILLIP CEASE
Our legislators must think you don’t care
State constitutions and laws aren’t suggestions any more than gravity is a recommendation.
And when you break the law, police don’t arrest you for the sole purpose of having judges wag their fingers at you and send you away to do it again. Odds are you’ll be fined or jailed or both, because in theory, penalties deter more crime.
But then we come to the South Carolina General Assembly, where everything seems to be upended. Our legislators have an almost casual disregard for our laws and constitution when it comes to their own behavior — and they keep getting away with it.
You saw it recently when Senator Hugh Leatherman stepped down from the state Senate presidency pro tempore to avoid having to become lieutenant governor, as the constitution prescribes; and then, after another senator stepped up, Leatherman ran for the presidency pro tem and won it again, all in a matter of hours, just as though he were juggling.
Citizens, editorial boards, and others around South Carolina were rightly puzzled that a lawmaker who had sworn to uphold the constitution would treat it so casually — along with the 28 senators who voted for the latest installment of these shenanigans, and the one who abstained.
When our lawmakers flout the constitution, they’re not always that brazen. The bad news is, they do it all the time.
Take section 15 of Article III, which says, with emphasis added:
“Bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives, but may be altered, amended or rejected by the Senate; all other Bills may originate in either house, and may be amended, altered or rejected by the other.”
That seems straightforward. Only the House of Representatives can introduce bills that raise revenue (usually by raising your taxes).
This part of the constitution, called an origination clause, is derived from the English Parliament, which believed that bills that deal with the people’s money should come from the chamber that’s closest to the people. In America, at the state and national levels, that’s the house of representatives. Since representatives typically have fewer constituents than senators, they’re thought to be more accountable to them and will think twice before reaching into their pockets.
In South Carolina, however, our senators regularly introduce and our Senate regularly passes bills that raise taxes.
This week, for example, the Senate passed a bill, by a vote of 38-5, that was introduced in the Senate, for a “sales and use tax”: S. 214 would impose a tax on purchases made online by South Carolina residents from out-of-state retailers. The intent, unmistakably, is to raise revenue.
How is this possible? Has gravity been suspended? Where’s that judge?
Funny you should ask. When a bill identical to S.214 was under consideration last session, a senator asked for a ruling: Was the bill constitutional under Section 15 of Article III?
Through some legal gymnastics and parliamentary voodoo, it was ruled that the bill was in fact constitutional. It went on to die in the House, perhaps because the lower chamber holds Section 15 of Article III in higher regard.
There are other bills that have been introduced in the Senate this session — such as S.54, which raises the gas tax, increases a tuition tax credit, fiddles with the income tax, and increases vehicle fees — that just as clearly sneer at our constitution. It makes you wonder: If our senators will do that, what won’t they do?
Respect our laws, apparently.