SC's week of legislative action

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The seventh week of the legislative session:

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SC BUDGET: The House budget-writing committee advanced Thursday a spending plan for the coming year that gives employees raises, pays down debt and sets aside money to deepen Charleston's port. The committee sent to the floor its $6.5 billion budget plan and a separate measure to spend $105 million from a rainy-day fund. The plan gives most public employees 2 percent raises. Department of Public Safety officers would get a 5 percent increase. The plan adds $153 million to the "base student cost" for education. School districts must use that money to give teachers and other employees raises of at least 2 percent. The budget puts $180 million toward deepening the Charleston harbor, fully funding the state's share of the expected cost. It would also add state law enforcement officers and provide health insurance coverage to an additional 80,000 children.

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EDUCATION STANDARDS: A Senate panel voted Thursday not to block the implementation in South Carolina of nationwide education standards in math and reading, after educators testified blocking the new standards would hurt students. The subcommittee supported moving ahead with Common Core education standards. Republicans did not want to kill the bill outright. So the 7-3 vote advanced the bill to full committee with an unfavorable recommendation. In July 2010, the state Board of Education adopted the standards on what kindergarten- through 12th-grade students should learn in the classroom for math and reading. Sen. Mike Fair's bill would have blocked implementation, set for 2014-15. Forty-four other states have adopted the standards, replacing those that now vary state-to-state. Common Core opponents call it a nationalization of public education. But supporters say the state-led initiative is about competitiveness.

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DHEC DIRECTOR: The state Senate postponed further discussion on whether to confirm Catherine Templeton as head of South Carolina's public health and environmental control agency. Sen. Phil Leventis briefly returned to the podium Thursday to continue his filibuster to block a vote, a day after the Sumter Democrat spoke for about four hours. Lacking enough votes to force Leventis to sit down, senators delayed the issue until Tuesday. Templeton was chosen by the Department of Health and Environmental Control's board, with Gov. Nikki Haley's blessing. Leventis argues the labor lawyer lacks the proper experience to run DHEC.

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ABANDONED BUILDINGS: South Carolina legislators hope tax breaks can turn abandoned buildings into bustling commercial space. More than 30 House members have signed onto the "Abandoned Buildings Revitalization Act" introduced Wednesday. It would give a 25 percent state income tax credit to businesses investing at least $500,000 in a building vacated for at least five years. Democratic Rep. James Smith says the measure will help bring jobs and economic development to blighted areas. According to a study by the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, the measure would generate about $20 in revenue for every dollar of tax credit.

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VIDEO POKER: South Carolina banned video gaming a dozen years ago after a legal battle that went all the way to the state Supreme Court. But supporters of restrictive legislation advanced Wednesday by a Senate Judiciary panel say manufacturers of new gaming machines may have found a legal loophole. New machines that have popped up in the state's bars and convenience stores are being marketed as "sweepstakes" devices, selling a product like long-distance phone cards or Internet service and then offering customers a chance to receive prizes. Police in some areas have rounded up some of the machines. But judges have issued conflicting rulings on the machines' legality, and the question may ultimately end up before the state Supreme Court. Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens says his bill would close the loophole under which the new gaming manufacturers are operating.

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KEEL CONFIRMATION: The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a new term for Mark Keel as chief of South Carolina's state police force. The decision to give Keel a new, six-year term as chief of the State Law Enforcement Division term goes to the full Senate, which last year voted 33-0 to let Keel step in as interim chief when former U.S. Attorney Reggie Lloyd stepped down from the post. SLED is South Carolina's top law enforcement agency, investigating crimes and serving as the hub for the state's homeland security operations and assisting local law enforcement agencies — a task Keel said is his top priority. The committee also voted to give a full term heading up the Department of Public Safety to Leroy Smith, a law enforcement veteran who has served as the agency's interim director since November.

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FOI BILLS: The House Judiciary Committee approved Tuesday a measure that could reduce costs for South Carolina citizens seeking documents under open records laws. The bill bars public agencies from charging more than fair market rates for copies. The proposal would also keep agencies from charging any more than the actual cost of searching for a record. The bill also prohibits copy charges for electronic records and requires public agencies to respond to public records requests within 30 days unless records are more than two years old. They approved an approved amendment to remove a Freedom of Information Act exemption for legislators.

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TERM LIMITS: A South Carolina Democrat wants voters to decide whether legislators should be limited to 16 years in their chamber. Rep. Bakari Sellers introduced a measure Tuesday that would limit the number of times House and Senate members could be re-elected, starting with those elected in 2014. Sellers' measure would ask voters in November whether they want to change the state constitution to limit House members to eight full terms and senators to four. A Republican senator introduced a similar measure the opening day of the 2011 session. It's gone nowhere.

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