Wednesday, March 11, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I gave you some background as to how our oceanfront management laws and regulations have evolved over the years. There were various “Blue Ribbon” committees appointed with mandates to protect our beaches as well as try and balance the property rights of adjacent landowners with the rights of public access. There have been multiple committees, each updating the management regime with an eye on future needs.

The most recent committee was appointed in October of 2011 and called the Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management. It was chaired by Blufftonian, Wes Jones, with this legislator also a member. Our charge was to develop specific statutory and regulatory recommendations from the research and policy options presented by our predecessor committee, the Shoreline Change Advisory Committee.

Our work product was presented to the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) board in January 2013. I have submitted legislation, H.3378, The Public Beach Protection Act, which includes most of the important provisions of our report. The bill has attracted a number of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, and will come up for debate week after next. There is also a companion bill on the Senate side, S.139, sponsored by Senator Ray Clary.

There are a number of technical features of the bill, but the most important tenet is to declare that the “baseline” established under the S.C. Beachfront Management Act should never move seaward from the position it occupied on 14 June 2011. The baseline is the line, which is currently set every 8 to 10 years according to various dynamic measurements. Building setbacks are relative to the baseline. If the beach appears to move seaward, then there is potential to move the setback lines seaward, and vice versa. When the baseline moves seaward, so do setbacks, and so do buildings. Our bill will allow the baseline to move landward, but not seaward. The science and the common sense agree that this is the prudent course of action. Here’s why:

Much of the coastline along the eastern seaboard is composed of barrier islands whose geography is in constant flux. Some years, a particular stretch of beach will expand, maybe for 10 years or more. That same beach may begin to shrink, and continue to do so for years, perhaps even opening into a small estuary and forming a marshland, only to be reversed eventually. Even discounting the effects of climate change and ocean rise, this is a demonstrable process. If we move the baseline seaward to account for a temporary event, when that event reverses, any buildings that were built during the previous years are in jeopardy. Property owners then want permission to build protective structures, even though we know that these structures increase erosion on neighboring properties.

The legislation we have put forth is likely to become model law for North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, if not the entire coastline. That is, if we can pass it in South Carolina. In years past, we were the leaders in innovative coastal land management. We’ll see in a couple of weeks if we still hold any claims on that leadership.

If you have any doubts as to the fact that barrier islands are constantly moving, go to Hilton Head Museum at Honey Horn and look at maps going back to World War Two. There were gun emplacements hundreds of yards off what is now the beach at Palmetto Dunes. In 1945, that land was high ground. Also, oyster rakes on the mud bars between Fish Haul Creek and Dolphin Head are actually tabby foundations of homes that were once 300 yards from Port Royal Sound.

We’ve worked on this for well over 20 years, it’s time to get it done, and done right.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week was a marathon at the statehouse. As a member of leadership, I arrive early and stay late, but there were just not sufficient hours to get it all done. That said, we did hit it a pretty good lick.

The situation involving South Carolina State University (SCSU) continues to unfold. The more we learn about this institution, the more concerned I have become. I hope we are beyond the blame casting stage. In truth, there is more than enough blame to go around. There is currently a measure being considered that would remove the current board and the current president, and appoint the Budget and Control Board as an interim board, which would appoint interim executive leadership.

This legislator is certainly aware that SCSU is our last remaining historically black state university. Also the lamentable events of 1968, on and around the Orangeburg campus of SCSU, lend a vivid chapter to our ongoing efforts to provide quality educational opportunity to all our citizens. On this, we still have a ways to go. Even so, it is our task as a governing body, to hold to account any element of state government, which fails to perform its role in a fiscally prudent manner.

In my view, there needs to be a clear picture of where and how the SCSU finances began to falter, and a plan to fix it. If it was simply a failure to accurately project enrollment, so be it. Is there now a credible plan to boost enrollment? If there was, as has been suggested, legislative inattention, let’s define and address it. If the problem is that the necessity for historically black schools is no longer what it was, I believe that too, is worthy of reasonable discussion.

The SCSU situation is complex and will take some time to sort out. By contrast, the situation at Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) is one of almost undiluted success, and success when we really needed some good economic news.

During the dark days of the Great Recession, I fought hard to provide PRT with adequate funding to continue their mission. The reason was that the return on investment for tourism and visitor marketing dollars is phenomenal. The visitor economy is one of our largest and most important industries. It also filters down into all areas of our economy, from hourly banquet workers to commissions of realtors as they seek to convert visitors to homeowners and local taxpayers.

Now, as the economy has gotten back on track, and we face huge deficiencies in our transportation infrastructure, there is some enthusiasm for paring back our investments in PRT. As Ways and Means PRT Subcommittee chairman, my thinking is entirely different. Most of us were visitors before we became residents. Most of us business owners had businesses somewhere else before we came to South Carolina. Events like the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing, the steeplechases at Camden, even the upcoming half-marathon at Palmetto Bluff, offer a ton of opportunities to show off our state and our people. You’d be surprised at the number of businesses with 50 to 200 employees, whether manufacturing, or PR shops, or even engineering firms, that are looking for a reason to leave the bad weather and high taxes of some of our northern states, and find our business paradise of good weather, low taxes, and plentiful year-round amenities. Sometimes, a week’s vacation at Hilton Head/Bluffton or Charleston/Kiawah leads to more than great memories and sunset photos.

Next week: I have filed legislation to give the force of law to the recommendations of last year’s South Carolina Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Change. This is important.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

We had another busy week at the statehouse, particularly regarding financial matters that come under the oversight of Ways and Means Committee. You may have heard about the extensive, largely unanticipated debt situation at South Carolina State. There have been some unsettling developments at this Orangeburg institution, but the full extent was brought to light in Ways and Means, as well as Proviso Subcommittee, my former chairmanship posting.

We have lots of questions that currently are without good answers. There are apparently audits that perhaps need auditing. The federal government has done audits on the grant money it has awarded to South Carolina State. Unfortunately, those documents are not available to us, for reasons that have yet to be articulated.

At this point, my concerns are two-fold: that the financial situation becomes clarified to the point where we can begin to seek some resolution, and secondly, that the students enrolled at the school are not left in the lurch.

Much of the activity and focus in this session has to do with transportation infrastructure—what we must do, and how are we going to pay for it. It is a problem of gigantic proportion that came about because we as lawmakers kept thinking we could get one more year out of our roads and bridges before we got serious about a fix. A year became ten years, then fifteen, and finally we are in a challenging situation.

Imagine, if you will, that we had deferred maintenance and replacement for thirty or even fifty years. Unfortunately, that is pretty much the way we have allowed our mental health facilities to be maintained, or rather not maintained. Most of our mental health facilities around the state, but especially those in Columbia, were built in the 50s, 60s, and some in the 70s. They are in rough shape. Practicing mental health is hard work. It is especially hard work in facilities that have leaky roofs and faulty plumbing.

The flow of new patients does not slow just because we have let our hospitals and outpatient clinics deteriorate. It just makes it much harder to keep good staff. If we defer maintenance on older buildings, we are not saving money; we are just paying a premium so that the responsibility is maybe on someone else’s watch. It makes sense to repair and replace, to bring these failing buildings up to current code and energy standards. The responsibility is on our watch.

Fortunately, interest rates are at historic lows and my preference is to take care of business. Let’s take care of it now while bonding costs are such that we may be able to retire the debt by the time the projects are finished. One way or another, we have committed to care for our mentally ill. We must retain our productive staff to meet that solemn commitment.

Speaking of low rates, the momentary price of oil and petroleum derivatives is such that road building is also about as affordable as it has been in my business lifetime. For all the reasons that each of you know, we simply must fix our roads and bridges. The only real question is how we pay for it, and how we structure the debt which will inevitably accrue.

I’m about as fiscally conservative as they come. I am also a businessman with some experience with investment. There is nothing conservative about allowing our investments to deteriorate for lack of maintenance. Whether we are talking about the physical plants at hospitals or the roads and bridges we depend on to move our families, or our economy, maintenance is a fact of life, whether we are talking private sector or public sector. Like it or not, now is the time to get busy.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was a really busy week at the statehouse. Fortunately, between committee and subcommittee meetings, there was time to meet with a good crowd of home folks from Bluffton and Beaufort County. It was a good combination of public business and a healthy dose of neighborly fellowship.

We are always pleased to see my good friend, Dr. Lynn McGee from USCB. She brought along a number of future leaders to participate in the meetings as well as observe the process.

Dr. McGee had essentially two agenda items. She wants to build on the progress we made last session toward achieving full parity for USCB with regard to state support. There is simply no rational argument to support having the Beaufort/Bluffton branch of a state university supported at a lower rate than others in the system. It is simply a matter of asking those branches that have relatively more support than we have, to forego a portion of their dollars in the interest of fairness. Not surprisingly, it has been a hard sell. Fairness is popular in the abstract, but somewhat less so when it comes down to actual budgets.

The other item was to have a general discussion on how we can contain the costs in higher education. The fact is that middle-class income, in terms of purchasing power, has been stagnant for a generation. The cost of higher education has escalated faster, as a percentage of family budgets, than just about everything, except the cost of health care.

There is very little controversy as to whether a college degree, especially an advanced degree, is the first rung on the ladder of success. It is true, not only in individual terms, but also speaks to the prospects of our national economy. It’s an absolute necessity to develop the clear, creative minds to continue to lead the world in an innovation-driven marketplace. To secure that level of achievement, the costs have just become stunning. Do parents choose to delay or forego retirement to finance their children’s education, or are we to continue to see graduates leaving our schools with a simply crushing level of debt?

This is something that must be addressed. Did any of you go to college in a co-op program—working a semester in your field, then returning to the classroom for a semester? What was your experience? Is the notion of a liberal arts education obsolete? Should we have more training, and less education? The current model, at least for the middle class, is broken, in my view. Do we reform or replace? I want to open this public conversation. Our community has a wealth of experience and wisdom. Let’s hear it.

Speaking of conversation, there were a ton of local folks visiting the statehouse last week. The events were a subcommittee meeting discussing a proposed new formula to distribute state funding to counties and municipalities, called Aid to Subdivisions, as well as a Municipal Association shindig. We saw Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville, representing Beaufort County. Bluffton Town Manager Marc Orlando and Mayor Lisa Sulka, along with council members Fred Hamilton, Ted Huffman, Larry Toomer, and his lovely wife, Tina, were on hand for Bluffton. In truth, the subcommittee meeting didn’t break any new ground, but it was great to see so many motivated public servants discussing how the state, county and municipality can work together, doing the people’s business. I want to have that same get together, but include my Jasper County, Hardeeville and Ridgeland friends, as well. I believe the key to such a meeting probably involves some adult refreshment and a plate of spicy barbeque.