SC Senate begins debate on bill to split up health agency

SC Senate begins debate on bill to split up health agency

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate agreed Wednesday to move forward with a proposal to split up the state’s health and environmental affairs agency, though lawmakers indicated they may still have some details left to hammer out.

Senators spent less than two hours discussing the bill to split up the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control before agreeing to give it a second reading, leaving amendments to be debated ahead of a final vote later.

The proposal as currently written would establish a new Department of Behavioral and Public Health, bundling the state’s public health and mental health responsibilities together. The current Department of Mental Health and Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services would be folded into this new agency.

Tasks such as environmental permitting and water resources management would fall under a new Department of Environmental Services. Other responsibilities are being shuffled around existing agencies, including the state’s Agriculture and Natural Resources departments.

Both of the new departments would be Cabinet-level agencies, meaning the governor would appoint their directors. The bill would effectively get rid of the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s eight-member, governor-appointed board.

The bill is backed by Sen. Harvey Peeler, the chamber’s longest serving Republican, who along with other state officials has pushed to restructure the department for years.

Some have complained that the nearly 4,000-employee agency has become too powerful and unwieldy, as it only indirectly answers to elected officials through its board. Lawmakers also have critiqued the department’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and said its board has lacked transparency at times.

Senators who spoke on the proposal Wednesday said they agreed with the need to divvy up the agency but wanted some tweaks of their own.

“I think it’s very needed,” Sen. Mike Fanning, a Democrat from Great Falls, said of the bill. “I think if (there is) anything that the COVID crisis has taught us, it’s expecting any agency to be in charge of medical pandemics and soil testing is unreasonable.”

Fanning sought to install a board for both the new health and environmental agencies, saying that the boards would allow citizens to have an extra level of appeals for decisions that could be otherwise unilaterally made by agency bureaucrats.

Sen. Chip Campsen, who chairs the Senate Fish, Game and Forestry committee, argued that the Department of Natural Resources should hold on to its water resources responsibilities because it is a stewardship agency with staff who understand how to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems.

The bill is in a special slot where senators must debate it prior to almost all other proposals on the calendar.

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