Thursday, May 9, 2019 Blog · News

The people have spoken: Sine Die 2019

by Merrill McGregor

I’m sitting on the steps of the Statehouse, reflecting on and celebrating the close of the first half of another legislative session in Columbia. It’s my tenth year with the Coastal Conservation League, and 2019 will go down in the books as one of my favorites yet.

In 2019, we generated more calls and emails to Columbia than ever before. Thanks to you and your engagement, we made progress — we helped good bills advance that will benefit the state’s environment and economy and we halted major threats. Here’s a short summary of some of our biggest conservation wins in Columbia.

The future is bright for solar energy in South Carolina. Yesterday afternoon, Senators unanimously voted to pass the Energy Freedom Act (House Bill 3659), aimed at boosting solar energy production and jobs. More South Carolinians can now take advantage of the cost savings from rooftop solar and benefit from a more competitive and transparent energy market.

More solar energy in our state also means we can lessen our reliance on coal and natural gas, reduce our carbon pollution, and protect air and water quality. You can read Executive Director Laura Cantral’s full statement on yesterday’s victory here.

The Energy Freedom Act, championed by Rep. Peter McCoy (R-Charleston) and Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort), will eliminate the current cap on rooftop solar, encourage large-scale solar like solar farms, provide options for low- and middle-income consumers, and require utilities to consider more renewable energy in future planning.

This afternoon, state Representatives voted unanimously to agree with the Senate amendments, and now the bill is headed to the desk of Governor Henry McMaster, who is expected to sign it into law.

We protected home rule and local bans. Together, we halted a perennial effort to push for a statewide ban on local plastics bans. Conservation League supporters sent 36,778 calls and emails to state lawmakers, advocating for your community’s right to address local problems with local solutions.

That’s a Conservation League record. We observed more action on this legislative campaign than any other issue … combined. As a result, some senators who’d previously supported preemption efforts flipped their position. “The people have spoken,” one lawmaker replied to our advocates.

As we worked to beat back Senate Bill 394 and efforts to dismantle local bans on plastic bags, cups and Styrofoam, more communities and citizens stepped up. To date, 17 communities (representing about a half a million South Carolinians) have passed bans, including two inland towns. And just a few weeks ago, a new Winthrop poll revealed a majority of South Carolinians support home rule.

Still, S. 394 was helped along by special interests and Big Plastic. The bill crawled out of committee, but not without opposition from state leaders like Sen. Sandy Senn (R-Charleston) and Sen. Ronnie Sabb (D-Williamsburg), local mayors, council members, businesses and people like you.

The bill missed a key legislative deadline, but still awaits consideration on the Senate floor. In later budget discussions, a temporary, one-year ban on local bans was proposed. But that effort was roundly defeated by a vote of 27-15.

Where S. 394 stalled this year is where debate continues next. It’s likely Senators will take up the bad bill on the floor quickly in 2020. We’ll need your help to again stop it. For now, local bans stand, and more communities are exploring efforts to proactively protect waterways, wildlife and residents from dangerous and pervasive plastic pollution.

“Who actually supports drilling?” We’re still tracking a budget proviso introduced by Sen. Chip Campsen (R-Charleston) that would temporarily prohibit state agencies and local governments from permitting or funding onshore infrastructure needed for offshore drilling.

Governor McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson announced their support for the budget amendment and, soon after, Senators voted 40-4 to effectively hinder federal efforts to explore and drill off our coast. If a conference committee upholds the proviso, South Carolina can stop expansive and environmentally destructive infrastructure like pipelines and refineries needed to transport and process oil and gas, which threaten to industrialize our fragile shoreline and fracture our quality of life.

During budget debate, Sen. Marlon Kimpson (D-Charleston) asked frankly, “Who actually supports drilling?” Our thoughts exactly, Senator. The one-year proviso and majority vote send strong messages to Washington that we remain united and resolute in our opposition to seismic testing and drilling.

We’re acting on climate impacts in Columbia. Finally, this year, we helped support a bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Goldfinch (R-Georgetown), and championed in the House by Rep. Heather Crawford (R-Horry), that would advance the state’s ability to leverage state and federal funding to provide low-interest loans for flooded-home buyouts and floodplain restoration. Senate Bill 259 would provide financial resources to local governments trying to help move people whose homes are repeatedly flooded to higher ground.

Federal funding to help people move is competitive and often requires a financial match from local governments, whose resources are limited. This legislation would create a revolving fund and meet that critical need, in addition to lowering state spending on recovery and restoring land in flood-prone places. I’m happy to report S. 259 passed successfully out of the Senate this year, and the House will consider the bill at the start of session in 2020.

Our Statehouse success this year extends beyond the influence of a single individual or group. The Conservation League depends on you and our conservation partners across South Carolina. It takes all of us together, united for our natural resources and communities.

We’ll have more work to do in the legislative offseason, so look out for updates from our team. If you have questions or want to talk more, shoot me an email at [email protected].

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