By RICK BRUNDRETT
As lawmakers return to Columbia this week to consider big issues such as the ongoing response to the coronavirus outbreak in South Carolina and the possible sale of state-owned utility Santee Cooper, some legislators are introducing bills that ultimately could fatten their own wallets.
And state law allows it.
Take Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, for example.
Hutto, a trial lawyer who handles, among other things, DUI cases and other traffic offenses that can come up in county magistrate courts, co-sponsored a bill, prefiled last month, that would set base annual salaries of magistrates ranging from $60,000 to $80,000, based on the population of the county.
Although state law says the governor appoints magistrates, the process is controlled by small county Senate delegations, which privately nominate candidates and forward their names to the governors, who typically appoints them after routine background checks.
The Nerve in 2019 revealed that in 12 counties, just one senator has that power. The select group includes Hutto, who controls magistrate appointments in Bamberg and Barnwell counties. It also includes Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, who co-sponsored the latest magistrate-pay bill, and who controls magistrate appointments in Fairfield and Chester counties.
Another one-senator power broker is Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens, who in 2019 nominated former House member Mike Pitts as a Laurens County magistrate. At the time, Pitts’ starting salary as a magistrate was $47,706; under the bill prefiled last month, his base salary would have been $70,000 if the legislation were in effect then.
The bill also guarantees that magistrates currently making more than their proposed base salary can’t receive pay cuts during their tenures, and that the judges are entitled to the same cost-of-living increases given to other county workers or state employees.
In addition, the bill, which is co-sponsored by newly elected Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Orangeburg, who along with Hutto will control magistrate appointments in Orangeburg County, specifically allows magistrates whose terms expire to remain in “holdover” status – enhancing the power of those senators.
The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Hutto and Fanning are members.
Hutto, the new Senate minority leader, wasn’t the only lawmaker who prefiled a bill last month that could boost his bottom line. Rep. John King, D-York, a funeral home director and owner, authored a bill that would allow funeral homes to “recover certain unpaid service fees and legal fees” from other funeral homes when “dead human bodies are transferred” from one home to another.
The Nerve in 2013 revealed that King sponsored a bill that would have allowed funeral homes to keep the bodies of families’ loved ones until their funeral tabs were paid.
In a more recent example, Rep. Roger Kirby, D-Florence, a real estate agent who also is an appraiser, and Rep. Jay West, R-Anderson, a business consultant who served on the board of directors of a professional appraisers organization, prefiled a bill last month that would change the licensing requirements for appraisers.
Among other things, the bill would expand the eligibility to become a state-certified residential appraiser from those who have bachelor’s degrees to those who have certain associate’s degrees or in lieu of a degree, those who completed 30 semester hours of “specific college-level courses.”
The bill was referred to the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, of which Kirby and West are members.
State ethics law bans public officials from using their positions to “obtain an economic interest for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”
But under a legal loophole known as the “large-class exception,” lawmakers can sponsor bills that benefit their businesses if the legislation also would help similar businesses equally.
The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out bills that pose potential conflicts of interest for lawmakers who authored or co-sponsored the legislation.
Efforts this week by The Nerve to reach Kirby, West, King and Hutto for comment on their latest bills were unsuccessful.
Bryce Fiedler, a policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
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