Over a week ago, a legislatively controlled committee quietly approved five-figure salary hikes for six state agency heads, including increases for two university presidents whose total annual compensation is much more than their state pay.

Medical University of South Carolina president David Cole received a $42,308, or 13.5%, raise from the state Agency Head Salary Commission (AHSC), bringing his state salary to $354,941, according to information from MUSC and the State Fiscal Accountability Authority (SFAA), an agency that provides administrative support to the AHSC.

The AHSC also approved a $23,009, or 10.6%, raise for Lander University president Richard Cosentino, bringing his state salary to $238,520, records show. His total compensation last year was at least $377,830, which besides his state salary included $122,319 from the university’s private fundraising arm and a $40,000 “housing supplement” from the university, according to his annual income-disclosure statement filed with the State Ethics Commission.

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Nearly half of South Carolina’s 46 counties were charging annual road maintenance fees as of last December, records show, though the state’s top court earlier this year in a Greenville County case ruled that its fee was unlawful.

Whether taxpayers will receive any refunds remains to be seen. Class action lawsuits seeking multimillion-dollar refunds have been filed in at least seven counties – Aiken, Beaufort, Georgetown, Greenville, Horry, Richland and Sumter – since the June court ruling, which did not order refunds in the Greenville County case.

Most of the suits cite a state law that would allow the plaintiffs, if successful, to be awarded 10 times the amount of the collected road fees, The Nerve’s review found.

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Lawmakers just can’t resist trying to exert more power over another branch of government.

Reps. John King, D-York; Annie McDaniel, D-Fairfield; and Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, prefiled a bill last week that would require separate majorities in the 124-member House and 46-member Senate to give final approval to any pay raises for state agency heads recommended by a legislatively controlled committee.

The Agency Head Salary Commission (AHSC), which includes eight lawmakers, approves state salaries for the heads of at least 90 agencies, including public colleges, according to the State Fiscal Accountability Authority (SFAA), an agency that provides administrative support to the AHSC.

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When it comes to South Carolina history, some state officials might need a refresher course.

S.C. taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.5 million this fiscal year and possibly could shell out as much as nearly $10 million in fiscal 2022-23 for a legislatively controlled committee created in 2018 to recognize the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution – which, ironically, started largely over taxation of the colonists.

The S.C. Department of Archives and History (SCDAH) recently has been advertising for an executive director for the “South Carolina American Revolution Sestercentennial (250th anniversary) Commission,” at an annual state salary ranging from $90,000 to $100,000, records show. In comparison, SCDAH director Eric Emerson makes $100,821 yearly, according to the state salary database.

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Another year, another round of raises for higher-paid S.C. House and Senate staffers.

The Nerve’s review of chamber records provided under the state Freedom of Information Act show that over the past year, 76 House staffers making at least $50,000 received raises ranging from $1,602 to $34,857. The median increase, which represents the midway point on the salary list, was $4,713.

The pay hikes ranged from 3% to nearly 53%, with 34 employees getting raises of more than 7%.

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As a special legislative panel considers a yet-to-be-revealed road funding proposal, the state Department of Transportation continues to plod along in fixing South Carolina’s bad roads and bridges while sitting on a massive reserve created with the 2017 gas-tax-hike law.

Recently released DOT records show that through September, a special fund created with the law had a cash balance of $895.1 million, which represented more than 42% of the $2.1 billion in revenues collected since the law took effect on July 1, 2017.

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Hugh Weathers, South Carolina’s agriculture commissioner, dubbed the project as the “Boeing of agriculture.”

In touting the project in September 2020, Gov. Henry McMaster called it a “tremendous win for the local community and our state as a whole.”

Sonny Perdue, then-President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary, cited the project as a potential national model.

But more than a year after the public announcement, there’s relatively little to show for the “Agriculture Technology Campus” – a proposed $314 million, produce greenhouse production, packaging and distribution complex in rural Hampton County, which is supposed to bring 1,547 jobs by 2025.

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Life Legal attorneys appeared remotely in federal court in San Jose on Wednesday to argue that a new California law severely restricting speech on public sidewalks is unconstitutional.

The law, SB 742 prohibits, among other things, "harassing," which is redefined as "knowingly approaching, without consent, within 30 feet of another person or occupied vehicle for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling with, that other person in a public way or on a sidewalk area."

SB 742 was enacted ostensibly to ensure that the public has access to COVID-19 vaccines without interference from protesters. However, legislators amended the law before it was passed to remove references to COVID vaccine sites, instead defining a "vaccination site" as a location offering any type of vaccine services, which includes Planned Parenthood and other abortion facilities that dispense Gardasil and other STD vaccines.

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Once again, the state’s chief revenue forecasters have grossly overestimated the popularity of an income tax credit that legislators created with the 2017 gas-tax-hike law.

In a Sept. 21 letter to Hartley Powell, director of the state Department of Revenue (DOR), Frank Rainwater, the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office (RFA) director, estimated that 68,350 taxpayers will have claimed a total of $4,273,721 in credits for tax year 2020, or an average credit of $62.52 per taxpayer. The actual total amount claimed for last year as of September this year was virtually the same as the estimate, DOR records show.

But the RFA initially predicted last year that for tax year 2020, 322,088 taxpayers – 253,738 more than its latest estimate – would claim a total of about $25.2 million in credits – nearly $21 million more than its latest forecast – or an average credit of $78.

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RICHMOND, Va. -- The Parental Rights Foundation, on behalf of a Virginia family, today sued Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, challenging a new Virginia statute that says parents may not consider religion when hiring a babysitter.

Jane and Scott adopted their daughter, M.W., in 2015. Because M.W. has medical conditions, the couple has hired babysitters to help with her care for several hours each week, helping her get ready for school, driving her to and from school, and supervising her after school.

It is important to this family that the babysitters they hire share and support their beliefs as Christians. "We are Christians and are looking for a likeminded caregiver," they said regularly in advertisements for the position.

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Prio week, the S.C. Supreme Court suspended Oconee County probate judge Kenneth Johns for 18 months after he formally admitted – for the second time in five years – violating ethics rules for judges.

It’s not often that the state’s top court, headed by Chief Justice Donald Beatty, publicly disciplines a judge, though the court system’s recent annual disciplinary reports show that more than 200 complaints on average are filed annually against judges statewide.

According to the latest report for fiscal 2020-21, which ended June 30, out of 213 complaints received during the year and 36 complaints that were pending when the fiscal year started, just 15, or 6%, were not dismissed.

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A powerful, legislatively controlled committee is scheduled Thursday to conduct annual reviews of the seven Public Service Commission members, though if recent history is a guide, the public won’t see any final written evaluations.

That’s because they haven’t been done in the past several years, despite being required by state law.

The written evaluations by the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) are important because state law requires that they be included in a PSC member’s record for “consideration if the member seeks reelection” by the full Legislature. The terms of three PSC members expire next year, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

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BALTIMORE -- Church Militant / St. Michael's Media, a Detroit-based Catholic news organization, has won its first amendment case against the city of Baltimore, Maryland.

Tuesday night, Judge Ellen Hollander handed down a legal victory by granting a preliminary injunction against city officials, who had interfered to quash the group's prayer rally, scheduled for Nov. 16 at the MECU Pavilion.

"Plaintiff has demonstrated a substantial likelihood that it will prevail on the merits of its free speech (Count I) and assembly (Count IV) claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments," wrote the judge in her order. "[T]he balance of the equities favors plaintiff; and an injunction is in the public interest."

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In a rare move last month, attorneys asked a judge to order the “civil” arrest of prominent Hampton County lawyer Alex Murdaugh to compel him to pay their clients – the sons of a Murdaugh family housekeeper who died in 2018 after a reported fall in his home – from a multimillion-dollar settlement stemming from the death.

State law generally bans arrests in civil actions. But under an obscure law – the origins of which date to the 1800s – cited in the Murdaugh case, an arrest can be made in a civil case for “money received or property embezzled or fraudulently misapplied” by certain public or private officials, including attorneys.

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When S.C. lawmakers in 2009 first approved massive taxpayer-backed funding for aerospace giant Boeing to build an assembly plant in North Charleston, the state estimated it would spend nearly $34 million over 15 years for worker training.

But over the past 10 fiscal years, the state has spent $58.3 million – an approximately 70% hike over original projections – to train Boeing workers through the S.C. Technical College System’s “readySC” program, according to information provided this week by the college system to The Nerve.

The average per-worker training cost to the state also jumped significantly, from about $8,950 as initially estimated to approximately $12,100 – a 35% increase.

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Major repaving or road reconstruction projects in South Carolina could take on average at least a year and possibly more than two years to complete, The Nerve found in a review of state Department of Transportation records.

But it’s unclear exactly how long it takes to finish road projects funded with gas-tax-hike revenues, given that DOT’s publicly available records are incomplete.

Meanwhile, DOT continues to sit on hundreds of millions of dollars generated under the gas-tax-hike law that took effect July 1, 2017. As of Aug. 31, the cash balance in a special fund created with the law was $869.7 million, or 42.4% of the $2.05 billion in revenues collected since 2017, according to DOT and state comptroller general records.

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