State Rep. Mike Pitts — a Laurens Republican who once made headlines for filing a tongue-in-cheek bill to register journalists — will leave his long-held House seat before the 2019 legislative session in hopes of becoming the next director of the S.C. Conservation Bank.
Pitts is a member of the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee, previously chairing its law enforcement and criminal justice subcommittee.
However, Pitts said on Friday the timing of his resignation is unrelated to the sacking on Wednesday of state Rep. Brian White, a close friend and Anderson Republican, as chairman of Ways and Means. Until recently, Pitts also headed the House Ethics Committee.
Instead, Pitts said his decision to leave the House came after he suffered a heart attack in October while hunting in Montana.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“My granddaughter, who’s 12, gave me a hug ... and said, ‘Poppy, I just realized I came this close to not having you forever,’ ” said Pitts, who turns 63 this month. “My grandson told me I was his favorite human. At that moment, I pretty much knew it was time to leave.”
Pitts, a House member since 2003, said his resignation will take effect Jan. 3, five days before the 2019 session starts.
A special election will be held next year to fill his District 14 seat.
“Mike Pitts is a man of character and integrity who can be counted on to do the right thing, no matter the circumstances,” said S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “As chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Mike led the internal charge on ethics and always had the members’ best interest in mind. The House will miss Mike.”
Pending his confirmation by the state Senate, Pitts — an avid hunter and Second Amendment supporter — will become director of the Conservation Bank, an embattled state agency formed in 2002 to protect land from development.
Pitts said he believes running the small state agency, with its narrow focus, will be less stressful than being in the Legislature.
The bank has not had a permanent director since last year when its former chief — Marvin Davant, who earned $97,000 a year — retired after 15 years, following a scathing 2017 audit that raised questions about the bank’s handling of public money and land.
In its search for a new chief, the bank interviewed three finalists in November, said a source familiar with the bank’s hiring efforts.
The bank’s board approved one of the recommended finalists for the agency’s new director and gave its chairman — Doug Harper of Greenville — the right to contact that candidate, said Amber Larck, the bank’s business manager.
The bank board plans to meet next in January, Larck said.
Pitts said he has not received a formal offer to join the agency, adding state law says he can’t be hired while a seated House member.
Pitts’ confirmation likely will stoke concerns among ethics advocates, who will argue there should be no revolving door between legislators and state jobs. However, conservation supporters said Pitts, who is respected in the Legislature, could give new life to the agency, despite his past criticisms.
“The big issue was the lack of public access to properties that were purchased with public monies — that’s what I was critical of,” said Pitts, a retired police officer. “But I’ve always been a supporter of this particular agency. Look at my (budget) proviso that funded the bank and kept it from disappearing ... during the recession two years in a row.”
The Conservation Bank long relied on money from real estate fees to pay for its land preservation efforts.
But, this year, lawmakers eliminated that revenue stream. Now, the agency gets its money through the state’s general fund budget, giving lawmakers more direct oversight over its spending. In the budget year that took effect July 1, lawmakers put $4 million in yearly money in the budget for land preservation, and added another $265,335 for new positions and to cover “other operating expenses.”
If Pitts is confirmed, he will be heading a state agency for the first time.
But House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, said Pitts’ move would be a natural transition.
“He’s a steadfast leader, someone you could always go to for help,” Simrill said. “He has a penchant for public service.”