By Thomas Novelly
It’s been a tough year for the S.C. Military Base Task Force.
More than a dozen bills proposed in 2019 made little traction in the Statehouse. And Task Force Chairman Bill Bethea is concerned that several crucial items could be caught in the cogs of committees in 2020, too.
“The Legislature has been consumed by the budget,” Bethea said. “The Senate was totally engrossed in the education bill, and now there’s focus on Santee Cooper. It’s been hard to get the ball rolling.”
The Military Base Task Force mission statement says the group’s purpose is to “enhance the value of our state’s military installations and facilities, as well as the quality of life for our military personnel and their families.” It was created under the guidance of former Gov. Mark Sanford to protect the state’s military bases from potential closure. It also works as a liaison between the bases and the Statehouse.
But many bills from last year’s legislative agenda are still on hold.
“We’ve been trying desperately to get these done,” Bethea said. “We’ve got to play catch-up.”
The Task Force is prioritizing five pieces of legislation, one of which is getting close to becoming law. Some of them are also backed by Department of Defense initiatives and the Navy. They range from exempting military retirees from taxes to regulating wind energy in the state.
Here is what the Task Force wants to get turned into law this year:
Decreasing spouse unemployment
A spouse who is living with a service member who is relocated to or stationed in South Carolina can be issued a professional and occupational license that they held within their previous states within 15 business days of a completed application, under a bill proposed last year.
The spouse needs a valid license in another state that’s in good standing, a background check and an application fee.
“When people are looking to move or retire after their service, this is one less obstacle for those who served our country to have to overcome,” Rep. Micah Caskey, a Columbia Republican and former captain in Marine Corps, said in a statement to Palmetto Promise Institute. “We should absolutely take the steps towards making the transition as easy as possible.”
Unemployment for military spouses is high, 16 percent nationwide, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study.
This bill has been a pet project for the Military Base Task Force for more than a year, and it’s nearly across the finish line. On Thursday, the state Senate unanimously approved the conference report, which paves the way for it to become law.
Retiree tax exemption
South Carolina is paving the way to exempt all military retiree income in tax year 2021.
Introductory bills in the House and Senate would continue a phase-in of exemptions through tax year 2020. Individuals under 65 who have military retirement income in 2019 may deduct an amount of South Carolina earned income not to exceed $14,600. It will increase to $17,500 in 2020.
People over 65 who have military retirement income in 2019 may deduct an amount not to exceed $27,000. That will increase to $30,000 in 2020. There are at least 21 states that tax income but do not tax military retirement income.
Senate and House versions of the bills are currently sitting in committee.
As hobbyist drones increase in popularity, military bases throughout the state are concerned about potential security risks posed by the aircraft.
A bill presented last year by state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, would make it illegal to operate an unmanned aircraft within 500 horizontal feet or 400 vertical feet from a state or federal military installation without permission.
This is also of concern to the bases in the state that have aircraft, such as Shaw and Charleston Air Force bases.
The violation will be a misdemeanor subject to a $500 fine or imprisonment for not more than 30 days. It was approved by the Senate and was referred to the judiciary committee in the House.
NCIS and S.C. laws
State Sen. Katrina Frye Shealy, D-Lexington, proposed a bill last year that would identify Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents as federal law enforcement officers and give them the jurisdiction to enforce criminal laws in the state under certain circumstances. NCIS requested to be added to the state’s list defining what agencies qualified as Federal Law Enforcement Officers.
It was approved by the Senate but is still waiting to be read by the House Judiciary Committee.
Regulating wind turbines
As developers eye the S.C. coast as prime real estate for wind turbines, the military wants to get ahead of potential dangers.
Concerns about wind farms being built in flight paths, too close to bases, or along the shore where installations like Parris Island call home, have been legitimate concerns for the military for years. The Navy also wants to renew a five-year permit that allows a sea and air warfare-training range along 50,000 square miles off the East Coast, including South Carolina, starting 12 miles out.
Concerns include low-altitude maneuvers by jet fighters and the use of radar.
A bill proposed last year by state Sens. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, and Ronnie Cromer, R-Prosperity, amends the Utility Facility Siting and Environmental Protection Act to establish a procedure and requirements related to permitting, construction, operation or expansion of a proposed wind energy facility in the state or the waters off the coast.
“These amendments assure that it shall not encroach upon or otherwise have a significant adverse impact on the mission, training or operation of any military installation or branch of the military as determined by the Department of Defense,” the bill states.
Bethea said, the S.C. Military Base Task Force isn’t opposed to wind energy, but that the locations can’t interfere with bases.
“There’s places where you can put them where they won’t be a risk to operations,” he said.
The bill is still waiting to be read by the Senate Judiciary committee. The Department of Defense has made regulating wind energy near military bases a 2020 initiative.