COLUMBIA, S.C. — State Rep. Jay Lucas, elected to replace disgraced former Speaker Bobby Harrell as the House’s presiding officer, pledged Tuesday to lead in a way that encourages all members to speak up as they work together to change the public’s perception of the chamber.
Without mentioning Harrell by name, Lucas said the “events that transpired 83 days ago rocked the very foundation” of the South Carolina House and tested people’s faith in government. He was referring to Harrell’s Sept. 10 indictment on nine misdemeanor charges. Harrell, speaker since 2005, pleaded guilty in October to six campaign spending violations and resigned.
“It’s going to be a new, brighter day,” Lucas said after being sworn in as speaker. “No more surprises. No more last-minute drafts. No more skeleton bills. The days of ‘Trust me, it’s fine’ are past.”
Representatives returned to Columbia on Tuesday for a special, two-day organizational session.
They elected the 57-year-old Hartsville Republican as their leader without any objections. No vote was taken. Lucas had been the lone candidate since two other Republicans vying to replace Harrell jointly withdrew Sept. 30.
Speaker pro tem since 2010, Lucas has been acting speaker since Harrell suspended himself a day after being indicted.
Also on Tuesday, the House elected GOP Rep. Tommy Pope of York as speaker pro tem. Pope, a former solicitor, has said he plans to run for governor in 2018.
Lucas promised to change the way the House conducts business, starting by insisting on punctuality. It is rare for legislative meetings to start on time. The House also generally allows members at least 30 minutes to register their attendance in the chamber each morning and after lunch before getting on to business.
“Punctuality should be a cardinal virtue,” said Lucas, first elected to the House in 1998. “It’s the people’s time. Let’s make sure we use it wisely.”
Lucas pledged to break from tradition and share power with his colleagues, saying so much shouldn’t amass into a single person. The speaker’s many powers include deciding who should sit on a wide range of public boards and committees statewide. As an example, Lucas proposed posting openings and letting members submit resumes of their qualified constituents.
He also promised to create more leadership opportunities within the House.
“All will have a voice in the collective well-being in the institution we love,” Lucas said.
Since Harrell’s indictment, study committees appointed by Lucas have met in the off-session to make recommendations on infrastructure funding, ethics reform and new House rules.
Lucas said the meetings showed the House is more than any one member or event.
“We have done much in 83 days,” he said. “We must complete the daunting task.”
The case against Harrell had been hanging over the House since February 2013, when Attorney General Alan Wilson directly accepted a complaint against him. Despite Harrell’s plea, a cloud of uncertainty remains. As part of his plea deal, Harrell agreed to assist any other investigation into the Legislature or other matters.
The State Law Enforcement Division released its December 2013 investigative report on Harrell last week, but 11 of the 42 pages were completely or mostly blacked out. In explaining the blackouts, SLED cited a provision in the public records law that exempts releasing information to be used in a future or likely law enforcement action.