Bill to dissolve DHEC awaits governor’s signature

A bill to dissolve the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, DHEC, now awaits Gov. Henry McMaster’s signature to become law.
Published: May. 15, 2023 at 3:18 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The state agency that oversees everything from issuing food safety permits to regulating dams to, in recent years, coordinating South Carolina’s pandemic response will likely soon be abolished.

A bill to dissolve the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, DHEC, now awaits Gov. Henry McMaster’s signature to become law.

Lawmakers worked out the bill’s details in the final hours of the state’s regular legislative session last week, getting approval from members in both chambers of the General Assembly.

If McMaster signs the bill, a years-long push by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler, R – Cherokee, the change would not happen overnight: DHEC would continue to operate as it is until July 1, 2024, when it would cease to exist.

“When you’re doing something this comprehensive, with this many moving parts, it’s very important that you get it right,” said Sen. Tom Davis, R – Beaufort, who guided the bill through the Senate this year.

The bill would dissolve DHEC and create two new cabinet-level agencies: the Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Services.

The governor would appoint the leaders of both these agencies with senators’ approval.

The new Department of Public Health would take over DHEC’s health responsibilities, while DHEC’s environmental control function would become the Department of Environmental Services, which would take over the Department of Natural Resources’ current Water Resources Division as well.

The bill would also gradually shift the responsibility over South Carolina’s veterans’ nursing homes from the Department of Mental Health to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The state Department of Agriculture would take over food safety programs, which DHEC currently oversees.

“Good, effective delivery of public health services isn’t a Republican issue, isn’t a Democratic issue, isn’t a conservative or liberal issue. Everybody wants to deliver public health services to South Carolinians in the most efficient way possible at the lowest cost,” Davis said.

Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters Friday he plans to sign this bill into law, though he had not seen the final details at that point.

“I think it’ll work better,” McMaster said. “It’s too big. It’s 3,500 employees, covering everything from licensing restaurants to fish to pollution. It needs to be an environmental agency and a health agency. I think it would work better separated.”

Previous versions of this legislation would have also abolished the Department of Mental Health (DMH) and the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS), moving their responsibilities under the new Department of Public Health. However, that was dropped from the final version of the bill.

But changes involving those agencies and others could still come.

This bill would instruct the state’s Department of Administration to hire consultants to study all state agencies involved in public health, including DMH and DAODAS, and recommend if any more changes are needed to streamline them in a report due to the General Assembly by April 1, 2024.

“Whether they should be consolidated, merged, realigned, so we’re taking a holistic look at public health for really the first time that I can remember,” Davis said.

Attempts to split DHEC fell short in past years.

Davis said he believes it was successful this year, partly because of the work they put into it, hearing several hours of testimony from agencies and groups on how this restructuring would affect South Carolinians and the services provided to them.

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