COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina General Assembly wrapped up a most unusual 2020 session by passing a bill supporters said will help get high speed internet to hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas.
The gap between cities and richer areas with good internet access and poorer, less populated areas without broadband access became even more stark over the past six months as COVID-19 pushed schools into the virtual world and made online meetings the way businesses and governments often communicate.
“I’m on more Zoom meetings than ever,” Rep. Brian White said. “We’ve got to get this technology.”
The House unanimously passed the bill Thursday, a day after the Senate suddenly revived the bill, approving it and requiring the House to come back for one extra day.
The bill allows and gives incentives to smaller power companies and cooperatives to let internet providers provide their service alongside electric lines.
“Everybody has electricity,” said White, a Republican from Anderson who led the effort.
Next session, supporters hope to get federal grants and set other money aside for more incentives to get companies to provide internet service on those newly opened lines, White said.
The proposal will allow the state to use federal COVID-19 aid to help pay for the tax breaks and the broadband expansion, supporters said.
Some 650,000 of the 5 million people in South Carolina don’t have access to broadband internet, officials said.
When House Speaker Jay Lucas banged his gavel around 12:20 p.m. Thursday, it ended the strange 2020 session. Lawmakers met for less than three full weeks after mid-March, where there typically would be two months left in the session.
Committee meetings moved online, lawmakers spread out away from their desks, most everyone wore masks — with some face shields — and the handshake that might seal a deal became a fist bump or a elbow tap.
The pandemic killed separate massive education overhaul bills that passed the Senate and House because there was no time and eventually no motivation to work out the differences. Leaders in both chambers promise to revive education efforts next year.
The question whether to sell Santee Cooper now moves into 2021. A deal to buy the state-owned utility remains valid until May, but senators appear less interested in selling it and Santee Cooper officials are taking steps to cut rates and save money as if they will continue to be independent.
Lucas has also created several subcommittees reviewing criminal justice matters, like sentencing reform, police procedures and property forfeiture rules. A subcommittee Wednesday finished work on proposed language for a hate crimes bill. South Carolina is one of only three states without one.
During the two-week September special session to wrap things up, lawmakers passed a bill allowing no-excuse absentee voting for November’s general election similar to what happened in June’s statewide primaries and approved a plan on how to spend nearly $700 million in remaining federal aid money for COVID-19 expenses.
They did not pass a budget, instead copying and pasting last year’s $9 billion spending plan with members worried the economic problems with COVID-19 have not been accurately forecast and the state could end up collecting a lot less in fees and taxes.
The state has saved about $775 million over the past two budgets. Senators did pass a proposal spending $40 million on small, annual teacher raises that had been frozen and $20 million on COVID-19 hazard pay bonuses for low-paid state employees. The House refused to take it up, saying they didn’t want to spend any extra money until at least Janauary.
There were other bills passed during a flurry of action this week, including:
— An overhaul of local business license rules that allows contractors and others to apply for licenses at one portal. Currently, businesses have to get licenses in every place they work, which can be dozens of communities across a region.
— Supplemental insurance for South Carolina firefighters, both paid and volunteer, who get cancer.
— Renewing permission for nonprofit organizations like churches or athletic booster clubs to run raffles that provide tens of thousands of dollars in prizes. The raffles were first allowed in 2015, but the law ended them June 30 so legislators could review how it went. Lawmakers made it a priority after the COVID-19 interruptions to bring them back.
— Allowing pharmacists to give flu shots to anyone in South Carolina. Previous rules only allowed pharmacists to give flu shots to people 12 and over.
— Letting Charleston and other places spend hotel and restaurant tax revenue on projects to stop flooding and improve drainage. That money has been set aside to promote more tourism.
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