Wednesday, April 16, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

May first is Crossover Day at the General Assembly. This means that bills not conveyed from one chamber to the other before 1 May face a higher bar for consideration than those before crossover. We also are in two weeks of recess, so this past week was a deadline of sorts for measures to be enacted this year. Fortunately, we upped our game a bit and got a number of matters passed and on the way.

We in the House passed “Emma’s Law” earlier in the session, with the Senate recently following suit and sending the legislation to the governor for signature. As you may remember, Emma’s Law is named for six-year-old Emma Longstreet, who was killed by a drunk driver two years ago in Lexington County. With the governor’s signature, the law will mandate that suspected drunk drivers who blow a .15 on the Breathalyser and are later convicted of DUI will be required to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicle for a year. The device will not allow the vehicle to start if the driver has been drinking alcohol. With several other features also included, this law is a signal that South Carolina is finally getting serious in a big way in dealing with the problem of drunk driving.

This legislator and your delegation have been working toward this goal for years. We have had much encouragement and support from the community, none more consistent or more fervent than from my friend Lou Herzog from Sun City. Lou, we finally got it done.

Continuing in the traffic safety area, the House passed a statewide ban on texting while driving. I have heard from so many of you over the years, which served to reinforce my personal experience in that many times a day, I see drivers unaware of light changes because they are texting, or they swerve to miss oncoming traffic because they were distracted by texting.

A number of municipalities and counties have passed anti-texting measures. This made it imperative that we pass a statewide ban, as opposed to a patchwork of local ordinances, to deal with this safety hazard. The current bill treats texting pretty much like failure to wear seatbelts. You will be cited, but the police cannot confiscate your phone. There is ample science to support a texting ban, but there is no clear consensus on how to deal comprehensively with distracted driving. I believe this is a good bill, which should become law.

Also, as you read this column, our beautiful part of the Lowcountry is absolutely teeming with visitors. The 46th Annual RBC Heritage is under way on Hilton Head Island, which will serve to multiply the number of visitors we are used to seeing. This is my annual request that each of us locals be patient and tolerant of folks who may be lost, may be jet lagged, or may simply be unaware that they are driving 25 mph in the left lane of Highway 278. These visitors are a momentary and trivial annoyance, which pales in comparison to the number of jobs in our community they directly support. Please be nice, be helpful, and be grateful that they are here to appreciate our beautiful place. Next year, they may be your neighbors.

Finally, please remember that the 14th Annual May River Clean-up is Saturday, 26 April at the Bluffton Oyster Factory Park from 9 till 12. You may remember that your Bluffton statehouse delegation, Rep. Newton and I, have challenged all public officials from Bluffton and Beaufort County to come out and get this done. Their response has been fantastic, so we expand the challenge to include all of Bluffton, Sun City, Hardeeville, and Hilton Head. See you there.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

By now, the good news concerning our state’s stellar employment numbers is common knowledge. For the first time in a good while, South Carolina’s unemployment rate is a full percentage point lower than the national level of 6.7%. To make things even more impressive, both Beaufort and Jasper counties are hovering right around 4.6% unemployment. Considering we are coming out of the most serious economic dislocation since the Great Depression, we have every reason to be jubilant.

Anyone who has followed this column for the last decade or so will certainly have heard this legislator’s opinions concerning the importance of jobs. Good jobs make for good families. When the family purse is full, on average, the kids stay in school and perform at a higher level. In communities where good jobs are to be had, law enforcement is under less pressure to control crime. Domestic violence is less common, as are calls for service concerning alcohol and drug abuse. Jobs are a key indicator of progress in many areas of concern, such as prison overcrowding, need for parole officers, and even traffic mishaps.

The fact that our numbers are dramatically improving is not accidental, or even attributable to the cliché of a rising tide… It has to do with intentional actions in your legislature with regard to setting the table for the creation of new, good jobs. The place where the heavy lifting is done is largely within the Ways and Means Committee and its various subcommittees, one of which your representative is chairman. While we would never pretend to take credit for the turnaround, we are responsible for refining and codifying the good ideas of the General Assembly, and making them into spending bills geared to accomplish the intended effect of supporting job creation. Here are a few examples from the last three years or so:

The Charleston Harbor Deepening was supported to the tune of $300 million in the 2013 appropriations. The federal government had committed to fund a large portion of this, but not surprisingly did not come through. In anticipation, we funded the entire operation. Why? The plain fact is that well over a quarter million South Carolina jobs are tied either directly or indirectly to port activity. That is around ten percent of all our jobs. Would we depend on the feds for such a large fraction of our economy? No way.

We spend $32.3 million in the last three years for direct worker training under the Work of Retraining/Ready South Carolina Act. Since 1991, Ready South Carolina has trained over 266,000 of your neighbors and friends to get and hold the jobs provided by close to 80% of the companies who located to our state. Those companies were very specific that the job-training program was instrumental in their choosing South Carolina for their location or expansion.

In the last three years, we have appropriated $78.4 million to the Department of Commerce Deal Closing Fund. On the surface, this has the sound of one of those state slush-funds that give us all no limit of heartburn. In truth, this well regulated fund has been associated with $2.7 billion (yes, billion) in new investment in our state, which created no less than 10,000 new jobs.

I’m proud of the fact that your delegation is at the forefront of these efforts to use state resources to train the workers and attract the companies that employ them, that are the reality underpinning those statistics.

Last week, I mentioned that Saturday, the 26th of April is the 14th Annual May River Cleanup and 4th Annual Earth Day Celebration, beginning a little before 9 a.m. at Oyster Factory Park in Old Town Bluffton. Your statehouse crew, Rep. Newton and I, challenge all elected officials, board and commission members, and all able- bodied staff from the Town of Bluffton and Beaufort County, to join this cleanup and celebration. We are burnishing the jewel of the Lowcountry. See you there.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Twenty years ago, South Carolina had the most stringent ethics laws in the nation. Spurred by the “Operation Lost Trust” convictions of dozens of legislators and lobbyists, our state finally said “enough” and passed sweeping new laws that defined the relationship between elected officials and those hired to influence them. In the intervening years, technology has made many of our once groundbreaking statutes almost quaintly obsolete. With the advent of online giving, cell phones, instant messaging, and a host of other technological and legal changes, we were long overdue for an ethics update.

Last year, the House made a tremendous effort to pass meaningful ethics legislation, only to see it stall in the Senate. Last week, both the House and Senate passed versions of the long-awaited ethics measure. Now the contest moves to the Conference Committee to see what the final law looks like as we put it on the governor’s desk.

The House legislation abolishes both the House and Senate Ethics Committees, replacing them with a new bipartisan commission, which includes public officials, and very importantly, members of the general public. Currently, the system looks far too much like the fox guarding the hen house.

The House version also does away with Leadership Political Action Committees (PACs), which have served to facilitate the already corrosive effect of unaccountable cash in the political system. This has not been a big issue in our elections locally, but it has been a source of concern in other parts of the state.

Another important part of the House version of the ethics legislation requires all lawmakers to disclose all sources of income, both public and private. This effort is supposed to rein in conflicts of interest. In truth, I have reservations about this portion of the bill, not because I have anything to hide, but like a lot of legislators, I am part of a family business. My disclosures are also disclosures of the income of my family members as well. This feature may have some unintended consequences, but as a whole, the ethics legislation is well crafted and should accomplish its intended effect.

It should be noted, however, that the Senate version adds twelve new sections to the House bill, nearly doubling the length of the measure. It waters down some things I like in our bill, while adding a few good edits. In response, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Greg Delleney (R-Chester), convened a special expanded House Judiciary Subcommittee to do an appropriate rewrite of our bill to give it more traction in Conference Committee.

While this discussion of the bill is far from exhaustive, it is my view that we must have a strong ethics regime in South Carolina. We must streamline the complaint process, and make public officials more accountable. This should also be coupled with a strong transparency initiative, which would go a long way toward reducing the public cynicism toward our legislative process.

Finally, I want to remind each of you that the 14th Annual May River Cleanup and 4th Annual Earth Day Celebration are both Saturday, April 26th from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Oyster Factory Park at the end of Wharf Street in Old Town Bluffton. The organizers want us to arrive a few minutes early for area assignments and to pick up bags, gloves, sunscreen, and water. We will also have complimentary muffins from Signe’s Bakery, Bluffton Rotary, and coffee from Bluffton Starbucks. Also, if you can bring your boat or kayak, there is going to be a big effort to clean out some of the trash up in the coves.

I will have more details next week, as well as a challenge from both your Bluffton legislators.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Former Bluffton Mayor Hank Johnston may be best remembered for his speech of many years ago when he laid out the four primary goals of the Town of Bluffton: “Protect the river; protect the river; protect the river; and protect the Old Town.” Times and standards continue to change, but the mandate to “protect the river” is as current as ever. To that end, last week I had a good meeting with folks from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). It was somewhere between a status report and a list of potential projects under consideration for “our river.” We managed to direct a substantial appropriation in the House budget to the care and management of this important estuarine environment.

Part of my investigative oversight was to have a good conversation with Larry and Tina Toomer concerning what needs to happen in order for the May River, along its entire run, to be returned to a pristine standard. For all my years in the statehouse, Larry and Tina have been my “go to” folks when it came to the real story of the May River. These good people know more than anyone else when it comes to what is working, or at least has potential, when caring for this estuary. As long as they are optimistic, then so am I.

In a related but less positive note, the dolphin population of our coastal area seems to remain under threat from the morbillivirus, which killed, or contributed to the deaths of over a hundred of these lovely animals in our coastal waters last year. So far this year, there have been 27 reported strandings of bottlenose dolphins along the South Carolina coast, including one on a Hilton Head beach, and another found in the May River near Bluffton. As we reported in this space last year, please do not touch the stricken dolphins, or try to help. Instead, please call the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 800-922-5431.

I received a number of calls about the ongoing investigations in Jasper County relating to the much-maligned school district. We reported some of the drama, which occurred at our Jasper Delegation meetings, where citizens wished to be heard regarding their concerns and how the school board did not seem open to those concerns. As chairman of the delegation, I was careful to note that we had no formal role in the official duties of elected officials in the community. We did, however, provide a venue for the airing of those grievances.

I have several calls in to both the FBI and the IRS concerning the investigation. There is a group wishing to set up a hotline to advise folks who are intimidated or reluctant to speak with authorities concerning what they may have personally experienced regarding either the school district or board. I must hold off on any recommendation until we hear back from the investigating authorities. I am personally distressed by this matter, in that there are many good people in Jasper County who have the very best intentions with regard to public education. They should not all be tarred with the same broad brush.

Finally, Mary and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Hilton Head Island patriarch, Joe Fraser. While somewhat less celebrated than his brother Charles Fraser, Joe was nonetheless an integral part of the transformational development of Sea Pines, and this whole part of coastal South Carolina. The Fraser brothers, along with their cadre of brilliant young acolytes, inspired a generation of planners and developers, including yours truly, with the vision of nature-based development, and the profound effect it can have, if done with consummate care and professional sensitivity.