Wednesday, December 17, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I gave you a preliminary report on the pre-session and a few of the committee assignments of members of our delegation. It is truly a big deal that both Rep. Shannon Erickson and I are members of Ways and Means Committee. Our primary job is writing the budget, the spending and investment plan for our state’s foreseeable future.

I doubt seriously if Beaufort County will ever again be anything but a donor county, as far as receiving in services and infrastructure value close to what we contribute in taxes. We are, in truth, a relatively wealthy area, and there is merit in lending a hand to those communities less blessed than ours. However, there was a time when we were taxed in an outrageously disproportionate fashion, with almost no recourse. The reason was because our population was small and our delegation, even with some seniority, couldn’t compete with the population centers. Much of that has changed and we are well positioned to contribute our fair share, but also to receive a more realistic return on our investments with the state.

My subcommittee assignment on Ways and Means is Parks, Recreation and Tourism. This is the culmination of several years of effort on my part, and of legislative allies who are familiar with my skills and inclinations.

Our part of the Lowcountry is home to one of the finest resorts in the world at Palmetto Bluff. They are consistently rated in the top five in the country and top ten on the planet. Bluffton and Beaufort are both travel magazine favorites, recognized as funky, off-the-beaten-path little towns to either visit or places to retire. Our natural assets, arts and cultural attractions, and great weather could all use more of a megaphone. “Parks, Recreation, and Tourism” is a large part of what we are about. It gives us a great quality of life, as well as supports a ton of jobs in various forms of the hospitality industry.

The most successful of our state parks, year in and year out, Hunting Island State Park, also supports many of our less visited parks. Hunting Island needs a little help with its beaches from time to time. We now have a seat at that table. I guess you could say I’m pleased with my assignment.

If you read Rep. Weston Newton’s Sunday column in this space, you know that he is also moving up the ranks. He was returned to Judiciary Committee, but also was assigned to the prestigious Constitutional Laws Subcommittee, along with Judiciary chairman Rep. Greg Dellaney, and House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Bannister.

Weston was also asked by Speaker Jay Lucas to serve on the newly created Legislative Oversight Committee. This important body will do a programmatic analysis of each agency of the state over the next seven years. Not only are we proud that Weston is one of ours, but those of who know this hard-working sophomore lawmaker are confident that his efforts will not only make our state government more efficient, but also more transparent and more accountable to the taxpayers.

It is a week before Christmas. In the spirit of giving and in profound gratitude for all we have been given, let me suggest this: Join Mary and I in support of two of our fine local charities. Send a check to either or both: Bluffton Self Help, Donations Dept. Box 2420, Bluffton, SC 29910; and/or Bluffton--Jasper County Volunteers in Medicine, Box 2653, Bluffton, SC 29910.

Think of it as a birthday present in the name of the fellow who told us to “love thy neighbor.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Organizational session for the General Assembly started this week and once again, our lovely portion of the Lowcountry has advanced toward the front of the legislative pack. One of my reasons in running for state office many years ago was to try and bring Beaufort County out of the political wilderness. We paid taxes in such disproportion to our meager influence; we were something of a piggy bank for the upper parts of the state.

Those days, thankfully, are long in the past. With the appointment of our delegation colleague, Rep. Shannon Erickson, to Ways and Means Committee, we now have two members, including this legislator, seated among the folks who prioritize our state’s spending and investment.

Originally, Ways and Means was organized to potentially have one member from each of the 46 counties. Over the years, as tax receipts gradually increased from the coastal counties and receded from many of the inland areas, more coastal members populated this all-important committee. With Shannon’s appointment, I believe each coastal county, including Beaufort County, now has two seats on Ways and Means. We will not fail to properly appreciate this enhanced responsibility.

Also, our colleague Rep. Weston Newton has been returned to Judiciary Committee, after distinguishing himself by his contribution to their work product in his first full, two-year session. His administrative experience as the ten-plus year chairman of Beaufort County Council was expected to give him valuable insight into how state legislation plays out at the local level, and he did not disappoint.

In fact, without stealing Weston’s thunder, there is a new, important committee being formed, on which Rep. Newton will sit. The purpose and powers of the new committee, I will leave for Weston to articulate. Suffice to say the leadership, myself included, has great expectations for the sophomore lawmaker from District 120.

Another member making a good impression is Rep. Jeff Bradley, recently elected to represent Hilton Head Island and District 123. Jeff and his vivacious wife Anne were among the more popular folks during the social portions of the orientation process. With Jeff’s solid civic portfolio, and his skills in finance, I would be surprised if he is not appointed to Education Committee. He has good ideas on how we can reform our public education system so that South Carolina young people leave high school not only with a diploma, or its equivalent, but also have a clear pathway to training and education and a place in the 21st century workforce.

On another pleasant note, my good friend Joanie Heyward was at the statehouse for a visit this week. If towns had ambassadors, Joanie would certainly hold that office in Bluffton. She not only can tell our story better than anyone, she also, through her many civic contributions, makes the story a lot more interesting and attractive.

Finally, it is my privilege to be able to adjourn the first day of session in honor of Ms. Jenny Bedenbaugh, the recently deceased mother of our friend, Lisa Sulka. Our heartfelt condolences go out to Mayor Sulka and her family. South Carolina is not made up of only smiling faces and beautiful places, but also some really good, decent people. Lisa’s mom was one of the best.

Once again, the holidays are here, with kids out of school and on the streets and pathways. Please watch out for them. For those older kids who will be attending parties and socializing with friends, please have the talk about the designated driver and playing it safe with alcohol. It is just what good parents do.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The Thanksgiving holiday at the Herbkersman household was, as much as possible, about family and a celebration of gratitude. We have adult children who have new lives starting alarmingly soon, and older parents who are dealing with the challenges that we all eventually will face. Holidays for us are times to focus on the present and enjoy our blessings to the absolute fullest. Memories of absent loved ones make the enjoyment of family and friends all the sweeter.

Strolling around Old Town Bluffton last weekend began with a commitment to walk off some of my excess celebration, but as often happens, it turned into a bit of market research. Old business habits run deep with me. As I made the rounds from the Promenade, meandering down to the Church of the Cross, by way of the Oyster Factory, I was a little taken aback by all the folks, and especially by all the business being done. I stopped to chat with a few shoppers who didn’t look familiar, thinking they might be from out of town. Some were, but several were in the process of becoming our neighbors.

Out-of-towners and newcomers alike were just enchanted with our place. They liked the way we have kept the nature intact, how we have preserved our history, and most of all, how people in the shops, galleries and restaurants all seem eager to chat. I am becoming more convinced that our friendliness and conversational bent just puts us over the top as far as visitors are concerned. Home folks kind of take it for granted. It really is a special feature.

And speaking of restaurants, many of you have commented on the changes in the Promenade, one of which is that Moon Mi is now the Mulberry Street Pizzeria. We had a number of good conversations with the Mulberry Street partners before we decided to make the change. We had built a strong business at Moon Mi, with a loyal customer base, thanks to the good work of former manager Charlie Wetmore. However, Joe Sullivan, Mulberry chef and partner, made a very good case that his product and style would enhance the overall dining offering in the Promenade, especially with the opening of the new Bluffton Room, and some of the other potential additions we are considering. We also liked the fact that it was one family group selling to another family group. Just seemed like a Bluffton thing to do.

One of the benefits of having two competing chambers of commerce in Bluffton, seems to be that they both are trying to raise their game. One example is that the HHI/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has hired a small business specialist, Hannah Horne, who is coordinating the chamber’s Shop Small campaign in our area. They have partnered with American Express and chosen four small businesses in Bluffton to spotlight with website videos and print coverage. Those businesses are: Babbie Guscio’s The Store, Jacob Preston Pottery, Chica’s in the Promenade, and Spartina 449.

Finally, I want to make a suggestion to all the business folks. Most of us can use a little extra help during the holidays, so it just makes sense to hire a college student home for the break, and hire one high school student, even if it’s just someone to sweep up and take out the trash. Not only will it make your life a little easier, with maybe a little more family time, it may well make the economics of those you temporarily hire a whole lot better. We have always tried to hire young folks over the holidays and have found that they are good workers and they also remember the opportunity you offered. I promise you they get more out of it than a few paychecks. It’s a small investment that can pay big dividends.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

We had a ton of calls from folks wanting to talk about last week’s column on the Jasper County School Board redistricting, and public input meetings. The overwhelming majority of communication was positive. It is absolutely in concert with my impression that the local stakeholders are ready for a profound change in how their schools are administered. That change begins with an honest, publicly endorsed reapportionment.

After seeing my column in print, I was a little taken aback. Usually, I am a bit more circumspect in how I write about things where folks can potentially get their feelings hurt. Honestly, I was more than a little irritated by the shamelessness of the effort to game the system by having outsiders giving testimony obviously influenced by a single source.

If I was unduly harsh or hurtfully candid, it is because I think that this matter should be approached with the understanding that quality education for the upcoming generation of Jasper children trumps the petty political concerns that seem to have done a lot, if not to create, then certainly to perpetuate the current systemic failure. This is about the real life prospects of many young people, as well as the future economic viability of their home communities. It shouldn’t be the grist for the petty politics mill.

As your representative, I take this very seriously. I know many of you personally. We, in the delegation, have heard your stories and seen first-hand the manner in which the majority on the school board has behaved regarding your concerns. One way or another, this situation will improve. If not, it is not unprecedented for the state to assume control of a school district to institute basic systems and controls. We all hope it does not come to that.

On a more positive note, I want to return to local topics in Bluffton, specifically the topic nearest and dearest to all Blufftonians. That is, of course, the May River, and how we can work together to return it to a pristine condition. You may remember that for the last couple of budget cycles, water concerns in southern Beaufort County saw a fair number of our tax dollars repatriated to the area. I want to give a little background on that.

Our friends at the SC Department of Heath and Environmental Control (DHEC) have a big job and not as much funding as they would like. Consequently, they prioritize their support very carefully. To that end, this legislator brought Marc Orlando and Shawn Leiniger, from the Town of Bluffton, up to Columbia to meet with the proper folks from DHEC. They gave an explanation and rationale for water quality funding that was both impressive and persuasive. They gave details on what the river means to our economy, with appropriate facts and figures, as well as what the river means to all of us, in terms of our coherence, unity, and prosperity as a community.

Not only was the initial presentation well received, Marc, now Bluffton town manager, periodically invites DHEC officials down to Bluffton to see how those dollars are spent, and explains how we get strong bang for every dollar invested with Bluffton for river improvement.

From my seat on Ways and Means, it is gratifying to see the DHEC folks use their relationship with Bluffton, and how good their return on investment has been, in committee testimony to justify and explain the need for future appropriations. Also, I am confident that Marc and Shawn are willing and certainly able to articulate the state’s position back to the town, so the town can continue their productive relationship with the state. Having competent people, with good communication skills, makes government at all levels work the way it is supposed to work.