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For SC lawmakers, 2015 shapes up to be a year of fixes

When legislators return to Columbia Jan. 13, their plates will be full.

Do they try to fix the state’s crumbling roads first? Or rural schools? Or pass tougher ethics laws?

The pressure will be on to do all three — and more.

A look at state government’s key issues in 2015:

Repair crumbling roads

The state Transportation Department estimates it will cost South Carolina $43 billion that the state does not have to repair and expand the state’s roads system through 2040.

While running for re-election, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley promised to unveil her road-repair plan this month. Haley, who opposes increasing the state’s third-lowest-in-the-nation gas tax, will have several high-profile chances to say what she thinks should be done, starting at her Jan. 14 inauguration and, later in the month, in her State of the State speech.

Facing criticism from constituents, legislators also have been studying the issue and meet again Jan. 12 to try to finalize a proposal.

The most recent proposal would give counties the responsibility to repair and maintain nearly half of the roads currently maintained by the state in return for guaranteed state assistance.

County representatives oppose that idea, wary the Legislature will provide enough assistance.

Fix rural schools

After more than two decades of court battles, the state Supreme Court ruled in November that the state has failed in its duty to provide a “minimally adequate” education to children in the state’s poorest school districts.

The court did not order a specific remedy. Instead, it told lawmakers and the school districts to report back with a plan to address a number of issues, including the state’s unconstitutional way of paying for schools, aging facilities and the difficulty in attracting talented teachers to rural areas.

However, Gov. Haley and state lawmakers filed motions with the Supreme Court earlier this week asking for a rehearing of the education lawsuit.

That request could delay what is expected to be a protracted negotiation between lawmakers and poor schools.

Fix Social Services

The embattled state Department of Social Services has been under scrutiny for more than a year with critics saying the agency does not do enough to prevent child deaths. Former director Lillian Koller resigned in July. Last month, Haley named a new agency leader, Clemson official Susan Alford.

Alford must win confirmation from the state Senate.

Meanwhile, Social Services is trying to hire new caseworkers to reduce the number of children its child-welfare workers must oversee. But efforts to increase the number of child-welfare workers have been hurt by high turnover within the agency, as other workers quit.

Toughen ethics laws

Lawmakers also will work on passing legislation to strengthen the state’s ethics laws.

Members of the House have drafted legislation that would revamp the S.C. Ethics Commission to give it the power to investigate ethics complaints against elected officials. However, some state senators insist the state Constitution requires the House and Senate to investigate and discipline their own members.

Meanwhile, former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is locked into a guilty-plea deal that requires him to inform authorities about any illegal activities that he knows of, a deal that could lead to charges against other lawmakers.

Fix S.C. State University

S.C. State’s financial crisis — the result of its failure to cut its budget to offset its falling enrollment and state funding cuts — led academic accreditors to place the school on probation in 2014. They are expected to revisit that accreditation — required for students to qualify for loans — this spring.

The state’s only historically black public college still has more than $7 million in unpaid bills owed vendors that date back about a year. However, S.C. State is set to receive $12 million in added state money during the next three years.

Lawmakers also will have to decide whether to grant the school’s request for an additional $6 million to pay back a state loan.

Aid for local governments

Counties and municipalities complain the state consistently has failed to give them tens of millions of dollars in local aid, required by state law.

Local governments argue that by shortchanging local aid — something legislators say they had to do to balance the state budget during the Great Recession — the Legislature is forcing them to raise local taxes.

Local governments want the state money that they say law guarantees them. But legislators could have other priorities for that money.

Protect the state’s women

In a state repeatedly ranked among the nation’s worst for women killed by men, lawmakers will hear proposals to increase the penalties for those found guilty of domestic violence.

Access to autopsies

Legislators will decide whether to require cause-of-death information in autopsies be treated as public records. The state Supreme Court ruled that information is a private medical record, exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act.

Critics say the information is vital to public, citing a Sumter police shooting where police said a slain man was threatening officers but autopsy records showed he was shot in the back.

Abortion restrictions

Several bills to further restrict abortions have been pre-filed in the S.C. House and state Senate.

The National Right to Life Committee has identified South Carolina as a state likely to pass a ban on abortions performed 20 weeks after conception. The 20-week abortion ban bill appeared in the Legislature last year, passing the House but dying on the state Senate floor.

Expand school choice?

South Carolina's tax credit that helps children with disabilities pay for private school proved very popular in 2014 and there will be a push to expand it this year.

Taxpayers requested all $8 million in tax credits available for the year. The tax credits were given to taxpayers who donated to nonprofits that made tuition grants to special-need students to attend private schools.

Private school-choice advocates want to expand the tax credits to $25 million a year. They also want to allow children living in poverty to qualify for tuition grants to go to private school.

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