COLUMBIA - South Carolina lawmakers opened their 2022 session on Tuesday with the familiar problem of the COVID-19 pandemic and a more unfamiliar problem of bank accounts bursting with money.
As is customary for the first day, lawmakers didn't do much except greet each other and catch up on what they've missed.
The House spent its hour in session reading bills across the desk while the Senate decided without debate to put in a special slot a bill that would overhaul a program called certificate of need. It would allow the state to control when hospitals can expand, where new health facilities can be built and expensive medical equipment can be purchased.
The proposal must be debated before any other contested bill can be taken up.
Some COVID-19 restrictions remained in effect. The House and Senate are keeping their public galleries and balconies closed after the rapid spread of the omicron variant. Staff and others in the chambers are required to wear masks, but members can choose whether to do so. About two-thirds of senators were masked up Tuesday.
The House and Senate will meet for 18 weeks through mid-May. It's the second year of their two-year session. Any bills that don't pass will die, and the 124 members of the House all face reelection starting with primaries in June. The next state Senate elections aren't until 2024.
Lawmakers will be determining how to spend more than $5 billion in extra tax money generated by growth, surpluses left over when the economy didn't crash as feared after COVID-19 and federal pandemic aid and penalties paid to the state for failing to meet deadlines to remove nuclear material.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said he hopes senators will spend much of this session in "robust discussions" about how to spend all the money because it is a chance to transform the state.
"One of my biggest frustrations is I think we spend too little time talking about how we are spending money and what the priorities are because most of the time you set the priorities of the state with how you appropriate money," the Republican from Edgefield said.
It will be the first session for new Senate President Thomas Alexander. The Republican from Walhalla took over in December after the death of 40-year Senate veteran Hugh Leatherman shook up the body's leadership.
Leatherman, a Florence Republican, ran the Senate Finance Committee for more than 20 years. Former Senate President Harvey Peeler, a Republican from Gaffney, stepped aside from that role to take over the powerful Senate committee that handles the state's spending.
There were no leadership changes in the South Carolina House.
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