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Bill tweaking governor’s emergency powers heads to SC House

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, center, gives his State of the State address, Wednesday,...
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, center, gives his State of the State address, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Columbia, S.C.((AP Photo/Meg Kinnard))
Published: Jan. 27, 2021 at 6:59 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A bill that would assure lawmakers have a chance to change or end a prolonged state of emergency from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster passed the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The COVID-19 pandemic going on for more than 10 months exposed some problems with South Carolina’s emergency law, which had not been altered in almost 60 years except to add the words “public health emergency” in 2002.

Under current law, McMaster can only issue an emergency declaration for 15 days before the General Assembly has to weigh in. To avoid that, the Republican governor has issued different declarations with incremental changes every two weeks or so. He issued the 22nd such order on Friday.

The bill would allow the General Assembly to weigh in within 30 days. They could end or continue a state of emergency with one vote of each chamber or alter it through a more lengthy process. If they don’t meet, the emergency declaration would last as long as the governor wishes.

The current emergency law was created in a time when people thought more of hurricanes and less about pandemics and modern governments that require continuity and quick reactions, whether it means shutdowns or rapid vaccine rollouts.

2020 also showed that the unthinkable might just happen, like a disaster at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, which once made nuclear weapons and now stores tons of nuclear waste, said Rep. Russell Fry.

“We’re thinking in terms of hurricanes and pandemic. But what happens if the Savannah River Site has a problem or what happens if the statehouse isn’t here,” the Republican from Surfside Beach said.

The governor has said his goal wasn’t to avoid legislative oversight, but to keep the government operating in the pandemic emergency because he couldn’t wait for lawmakers to meet when they were trying to stay apart.

McMaster supports the bill.

“It was also likely never contemplated that a future General Assembly would be unable to meet and conduct business for such a long period of time,” the governor said in his State of the State address earlier this month.

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