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Capitol Report - March 20, 2012

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Texting while driving ban being considered

The House set aside the week of March 12 through16 to debate the budget plan for state agencies for the Fiscal Year beginning July 1. House legislators are going through the budget section by section and discussing whether to approve each section as proposed, or to amend it.  
The budget proposal under discussion was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee in late February.   In my next Capitol Report, I will summarize the major changes that House members make to the budget plan.
On March 7 the House overwhelmingly approved and sent the Senate a measure (H 4451) that would prohibit motorists from texting while driving. Specifically, the bill would make it a misdemeanor to compose, write or send an electronic message from a cell phone, computer or other portable electronic device. An electronic message is defined in the bill as a text message, instant message, electronic mail or a command to access an Internet site.
An amendment approved on the House floor would allow texting if the vehicle is stopped, parked or not in motion.  Exceptions would be allowed for drivers seeking medical or emergency assistance, for law enforcement officers or other public safety officials or for someone operating  a GPS  navigation system attached to the motor vehicle.
Violators of the law would be guilty of a misdemeanor crime and could be fined up to $150, or could be subject to jail time if another person was severely injured or died in an accident caused by driving and texting. An amendment on the House floor deleted the bill’s provision that two points be assessed against a persons’ driving record for violating the law.  
Another amendment adopted on the House floor would require law enforcement officers to have “probable cause” that the law has been violated before stopping someone.  The officer also would need to obtain a search warrant before looking at information stored on your cell phone.    
The American Journal of Public Health reported that 16,000 people died nationwide in accidents caused by drivers sending text messages between 2001 and 2007.  Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 35 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
In early March, the  House recommitted back to the Judiciary Committee two measures:  one dealing with voter registration drives and the other reforming the S.C. Department of Transportation.
One of the recommitted bills (H 4549) would have imposed new requirements on third party groups, such as the League of Women Voters, that conduct voter registration drives.  Organizations planning to register voters would have had to provide detailed information with the South Carolina Election Commission and would have been subject to hefty fines for failing to promptly turn in voter registration  forms.
Legislators were deluged with letters, phone calls, emails and petitions expressing concerns that the bill would hinder the voting rights of elderly, minority, low-income and disabled voters, who are most likely to register through community voter registration drives rather than go to  a county voter registration office. We’ve been told that the bill is likely dead for this year.
Legislation (H 4625) reforming the Department of Transportation was also recommitted to the Judiciary Committee after a voice vote March 7. The bill would have eliminated the agency’s governing body, the seven-member Commission of Transportation.

While legislators generally agree the transportation agency needs to be reformed, they differ on what changes should be made. The bill’s opponents said there needs to be greater public discussion before  deciding to eliminate the commission. The agency has been criticized for approving projects not on its priority list and for seeking a $52 million federal bailout for falling behind on its payments for construction loans.  
The S.C. Legislature affirmed its opposition to a permit granted by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to allow the deepening of the Savannah port. The House and Senate overwhelmingly overrrode Governor Haley’s veto of a joint resolution (H 4627) that retroactively suspended the authority of DHEC from making decisions related to the port issue.   
The resolution stated that the permit issued by DHEC is invalid, since the agency usurped authority over the matter from the Savannah River Maritime Commission, created by the S.C.  General Assembly in 2007.   Meanwhile, several conservation groups have asked the S.C. Supreme Court to vacate the permit, and the Maritime Commission is appealing it through the State Administrative Law Court.
In other action, the House approved and sent the Senate a measure (H 3558) that would make it easier for a college student who is  in the armed services to stay in college.  The bill would require any college or university that receives state funding to excuse any absences by students who are participating in military service, duty, training or disaster relief efforts.    
It clarifies that such students should not be penalized for their absences, must be allowed to complete missed assignments and to take missed exams “within a reasonable time” of his or her return.  
The Legislature meets Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, January through mid-June. If you need to reach me on those days, please contact the Columbia office at  803-734-2999,  333C Blatt Building, P.O. Box 11867, Columbia, S.C. 29211. My email address in Columbia is tedvick@schouse.gov.  
On days when we are out of session, please contact the  Chesterfield County Legislative Delegation Office, at  843-623-5001, 200 West Main Street, Chesterfield, S.C.  29709, or email me at cfieldcodelegation@yahoo.com.