Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Legislative success in the S.C. State Senate

While we've seen a lot of criticisms leveled at the State Senate, calling the institution a dead-end for legislation passed by the House. While some very useful bills have stalled in that chamber, not every good idea or vital piece of legislation dies there. As one of the lead negotiators for the construction industry and a primary instigator of efforts to reform the state's underground utility safety laws, I know firsthand what the Senate can accomplish.

Working with the Senate (and later House members), laws that were enacted in 1978 and were considered some of the most outdated in our nation's history one of the worst in the nation in regard to safety, were finally updated. These reforms helped to head off potential hazards that were putting both construction workers and the general public in harm’s way.

Late in 2009, when I began to reach out to legislators in order to help reform these laws, I explained these issues and the potential dangers to many Senators, including Senators Paul Campbell, Tom Davis, Brad Hutto, Luke Rankin and Mike Rose, who took the matter very seriously. In response, Senators committed to support efforts to reform these laws by scheduling several hearings and assigning staff to help the stakeholders work out a comprehensive reform bill.

The bi-partisan sponsorship and the 39-1 Senate vote for Senate Bill 705 showed just how good a job the Senate did at helping corral the stakeholders and get everyone on the same page.

The House passed the bill just as quickly as the Senate did and it was signed into law by Governor Haley shortly thereafter.

Without that broad support, passing the bill would have been a far more contentious and time-consuming process and would likely have resulted in finger-pointing between stakeholders, potential lawsuits by those who felt they were wronged and sought judicial remedies, and efforts to revise the law at a later date to satisfy narrow interests. But as the overwhelming majority of bills that legislators sponsor never see the light of day, odds were good that in an adverse situation, a bill would never have passed this gauntlet at all.

Getting the bill moved out of the Senate wasn’t accomplished by ranting at press conferences or by making demands or threats. It was accomplished by presenting the facts to the Senators, asking for their help and seeking their guidance on how to craft a bill that would build a broad base of support. In response, the Senate helped provided a framework to allow stakeholders groups work out their differences and held them accountable for making progress towards working out a final bill. This played a key role in helping the stakeholders to address these concerns as a team and produce a bill which addressed every important issue at stake.

At no point did I ever ask a Senator to support the bill. I presented the fact and let them make up their own minds about where they would stand on the issue.

It’s not always possible to get bills through the Senate, but like the saying that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, trying to work with the Senate and giving them a chance to get on board up front can help. In South Carolina, the Senate works differently than the House. It always has, and those who understand and appreciate this can sometimes accomplish things which other cannot.

Sound bites and threats and demands won’t keep my employees from getting killed or protect neighborhoods from underground utility explosions – but teamwork can. In helping resolve an issue that was literally a matter of life or death, the Senate was certainly an important part of the team.


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