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September 27th, 2020
By Shelley Robbins
COVID-19 shut down the South Carolina General Assembly in mid-March, stomping the brakes on several good bills that we have been supporting. They returned briefly a couple of times to deal with COVID-19 funding and to try to work on the budget, but substantive work on non-appropriations issues did not resume until the two-week session September 15-24.
Once again, there was no agreement on a new budget for 2020-2021, so the state will continue to operate under the terms set forth in the Continuing Resolution passed in May as a stop-gap to keep government running. State agencies will continue with the same budgets they had for 2019-2020. The two elements of the budget that we watch closely are the SC Conservation Bank budget and funding to the SC Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for the State Water Plan. It appears these will hold steady. Before COVID-19, we had hoped to see increases in these two budgets, but at this point, we are simply relieved they were not reduced.
A theme we are noticing is that great bills that were passed in previous years are proving their value and wisdom now. One is the reauthorization of the Conservation Bank in the spring of 2018. The Bank was not only reauthorized that year but also made permanent and no longer subject to having its budget zeroed out. This year, we are exceptionally grateful for that outcome. Read more about budget drama here in The State.
Also in recent years, a bill was passed strengthening the qualifications required of the SC Public Service Commission. This past week, four new Commissioners were elected by the General Assembly, all of whom are highly qualified (joining the current three, also highly qualified). New Commissioners from the Upstate include Mike Caston (District 3), former executive director of SJWD Water District and Headen Thomas (District 5), a CPA from Rock Hill who has worked for Piedmont Natural Gas. With a slew of dockets in process at the PSC that resulted from last year's landmark Energy Freedom Act and increasing complexity in utility ratemaking ahead, we are pleased to welcome these new Commissioners. Read more about all of the new Commissioners here in this article by Sammy Fretwell in The State.
The Turtle Bill (formally called the Black Market Wildlife Trading Bill) H. 4831 passed this past week and is heading for the Governor's desk. I wrote about that bill here, way back at the beginning of session in January. In true turtle form, it took awhile, but it finally crossed the finish line. DNR will now have the tools it needs to crack down on illegal trading that has threatened South Carolina wildlife.
Another great bill that passed was the Energy Market Reform Study Committee Bill H. 4940. Energy burden has been an issue in this state for many years, but COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem by threatening the financial security of families who were already stressed. This bill will allow the Legislature to go ahead and start looking at energy market reforms that can be used to make energy supply more competitive and bring down prices. I explained the key elements of that bill here, and the Post and Courier covered it last week here. Note that energy burden is a function of both energy prices and energy consumption. This bill will tackle price. Upstate Forever is also working to improve policies and programs that increase access to energy efficiency solutions with a focus on low-income customers.
And finally, the General Assembly passed another one of those "long game" bills that should have a tremendous positive impact in the years to come. S 259 is the Disaster Relief and Resilience Act, and it creates a State Office of Resilience and a Disaster Relief and Resilience Fund. Due to the above-referenced budget crisis, neither of these are funded in the bill, but at least they are created, and the revolving fund can accept federal funds as they become available. This bill is a response to both the work of the State Floodwater Commission and to the increasing instances of flooding in all parts of the state. The bill requires the office to develop a Statewide Resilience Plan that includes a flooding assessment for each of the state's eight watersheds, allows funds to be awarded to communities to buy out and/or restore floodplains, and it adds a resiliency element to city and county comprehensive plans "that considers the impacts of flooding, high water, and natural hazards on individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, economic development, public infrastructure and facilities, and public health, safety and welfare." Read the Post and Courier editorial on the bill here.
And finally, a couple of bills that we opposed are dead, including the Plastics "Ban Ban" Bill S. 394 that prevented communities from developing local solutions to plastic pollution and the Plastics Pyrolysis Bill H. 4152 that would have exempted unproven and expensive plastics gasification plants from most DHEC oversight.
Thus endeth the 123rd Session of the South Carolina General Assembly. Thank you for all of your comments and communications with your legislators! As you can see, it made a world of difference.
In theory, the Legislature can return any time until mid-November, but that is not likely. If they do, I will let you know what happened. Otherwise, I'll see you again in January. Stay safe and well.
Energy and State Policy Director
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