S.C. General Assembly to go into overtime on abortion, other issues


COLUMBIA (AP) - Thursday was supposed to be the final day of the regular session for the South Carolina General Assembly.

But debates about abortion, guns and bond reform along with the always slow to resolve discussions about the state budget appear to have the session going into overtime next week.

For the past 20 years, lawmakers have passed what's called a sine die resolution, ending the regular session at its mandated day and time with a set of issues they can return and take up later as they wish. It was abortion in 2022 and redistricting in 2021 along with the perpetual items like the state budget or governor's vetoes.

This year, the Senate and House couldn't agree on that resolution, so it will be up to the governor to call the General Assembly back in a special session with no limits on what is discussed. Leadership in both chambers said Gov. Henry McMaster will do that almost immediately.

It's a lot of power for lawmakers to give up to the governor and hasn't happened since 2002 because the Republican-dominated Legislature didn't fully trust the Republican governors before McMaster.

In theory, anything can be dealt with during the special session. But in 2023, only a few outstanding issues are likely to come up as it's the first year of the two-year sessions and bills stay alive wherever they are in the legislative process until the 2024 session begins.

Top of the list is abortion. A state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year overturned South Carolina's ban on abortions when cardiac activity can be detected, typically around six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.

That ruling put the state's old ban on abortion, around 20 weeks after conception, back in place and the monthly total of abortions has risen from a few hundred to close to 1,000, according to state health data.

House members want a near-total ban with exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or if the life of the mother is at risk. The Senate only mustered enough votes for a cardiac ban rewritten in hopes of getting around the state court ruling.

The House has rewritten the Senate bill and will take it up next week. If it passes, the Senate will consider the House changes.

Other issues likely to be considered are bond reform - which has passed both chambers but differences need to be resolved - stuffer penalties for crimes involving fentanyl and creating a state law making it illegal for a convicted felon to have a gun.

House Speaker Murrell Smith said that even though a special session can go indefinitely, he doesn't expect the General Assembly will meet again after May barring a major emergency.

"We have in essence been in session year round for three years since COVID. It's time for us to go home and remember that we're part-time legislators and for us to tend to our business and families," Smith said.

The looming special session subdued the typical last-day-of-school vibes of the second Thursday in May. The buzz in the lobby was low-key without the high-pressure debates, shuttling of bills between chambers and hushed conversations in side rooms as the clock ticked toward 5 p.m.

There was a farewell speech in the Senate, where Sen. Marlon Kimpson is leaving after 10 years to become a trade policy adviser in President Joe Biden's administration.

Kimpson's first major work in the Senate was assuring police body camera footage can be made public in certain circumstances after Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man running from a North Charleston traffic stop in 2015, was shot in the back by an officer.

Kimpson fought for gun control, against abortion restrictions and for small businesses while fighting against large corporations.

"While I was here, we fought big ag, we fought big chicken, and we fought big tobacco," Kimpson said.

Kimpson's unique Charleston twang was instantly recognizable. Senators played clips of some of his best quotes before his speech. Kimpson responded with a life-size cutout of himself he offered to any senator who would continue to need "my wise council."

"You are never wrong for doing the right thing. Go do great things for all of the people of this great state," Kimpson said as he wrapped up his speech. "I suspect you will all miss me greatly."