Wednesday, January 21, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I asked for your take on the Medical Marijuana Law filed by my friend and delegation partner, Senator Tom Davis. From the moment the column appeared in last Wednesday’s paper, I have continued to receive a torrent of comment. While the question was directly concerning medical marijuana, your emails were so wide ranging and expressed such a level of frustration with aspects of our health care system, I continue to be taken somewhat aback.


Most of the letters were in favor of some form of medical marijuana availability, and told of experiences similar to that of my brother Tom, which I related in my previous column. There were stories of older parents from family caregivers. Two emails detailed the struggles of military wives trying to deal with the fallout, both physical and psychological, from multiple overseas deployments. There were some libertarian arguments that viewed the fact that medical marijuana, despite studies highlighting its therapeutic potential, was unavailable and illegal in most jurisdictions as evidence of “manipulation of the free market.”


I heard from folks with chronic pain who were taking a dozen or more prescription drugs, some for the pain and the rest to deal with the side effects of the pain drugs. L. Levine of Sun City put it this way “Doctors willingly prescribe all sorts of pain killers which have serious side effects and don’t provide relief. I will not use those drugs. I am close to 80 and…I would like to try marijuana to see if it helps enough so that I can return to a normal life… I cannot understand why those of us in pain are restricted from using a drug because other people will misuse it…My friends and neighbors in Sun City are almost all in support of the legislation, or willing to give it serious consideration.”


Another articulate and well-reasoned email came from C. Davis of Bluffton, a survivor of three “successful but horrendous battles” with cancer. She was a federal employee in Washington, D.C. who describes herself as “conservative and practical by nature.” (She and I both) Being cognizant of the therapeutic potential and the demonstrable downside of marijuana, she emphasized that any medical use of the drug should not look anything like the “California model…with a pot shop in every strip mall.” It needs to be gradually introduced with tight controls and multiple layers of review. Medical marijuana “if handled carefully, can help some of our most ill citizens…If handled haphazardly, it can devastate our most vulnerable communities with increased crime and drug usage.”


Lou Herzog has been a friend, supporter, and advisor for many years. He was also good enough to offer his views on this matter. Lou has been a stalwart in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) since 1983, a year in which there were 27,000 alcohol related deaths on our highways. While that figure has dropped to around 16,000 recently, he sees a probable parallel with the increase of “impaired driving” involving drugs, including prescription drugs, potentially including marijuana. While he accepts the inevitability of prescription medical marijuana, he urges us, as lawmakers, to go slowly, review what other states have had success with, and don’t leave a lot of loopholes in the enforcement. In his own inimitable way, Lou says: “I’m 82 now and God willing I’ll be around a while longer, but my and your children, grandchildren, etc., will have to live with the laws we put on the books now.”


Thank you, friends. I am grateful and humbled by your candor and generosity-- and privileged to be your representative.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

After a very busy fall and early winter, we are finally in legislative session. The last couple of months of 2014 were just packed with Ways and Means Committee pre-session meetings, as well as the study committees and subcommittees to formulate strong recommendations for legislative action as we reconvene. The planning is over and it’s time to get to work.


As you may know, my friend and delegation colleague, Senator Tom Davis, has sponsored a bill from the senate side called the Medical Marijuana Law. It proposes a state program to make medical marijuana available to folks with documented need for this drug, when prescribed by a medical doctor. Needless to say, this is a controversial proposal and I need to hear from you, the residents and voters of District 118. I have certain thoughts and feelings about this issue, which I will share in a moment. However, as your representative, I must have a sense of how the community at large comes down on this matter.


This is not the first time I have sought your council on important issues, and you have never let me down. Whether I needed your thoughts on the limits of imminent domain as a way for the state to secure land for important projects, or whether you thought development issues along the Colleton/Okatie needed more scrutiny, you have given me what I needed to do the proper thing. I know this time will be no exception.


The primary argument opposing medical marijuana is the “slippery slope” notion that this is just a way to crack the door for decriminalization of marijuana, perhaps leading toward legal access to a host of currently illegal substances. It is said that prescriptions for medical marijuana erode the seriousness of the doctor/patient relationship, leading to make-believe illnesses and disingenuous treatment. There is also the safety question that is: We already have a huge problem with driving under the influence of alcohol, why add another drug that drivers should not take before driving?


Medical marijuana advocates counter by saying that pain management is made simpler and more effective if medical marijuana is in the mix. This often leads to less reliance on addicting and costly narcotics. There are some good studies that show effectiveness in treating some phobias and Post Traumatic Stress with controlled amounts of marijuana. There is also the difficulty of doing good research into the potential breakthroughs that may reside in this drug, if it’s still stigmatized as illegal across the board. Such a breakthrough is the seizure reducing marijuana oil, now somewhat available due to the exemplary efforts of Senator Davis in the last session.


My thinking on this issue comes partly from the competing arguments, but mainly from the experiences of my brother and former business partner, Tom Herbkersman. Tom was diagnosed with a virulent and very painful form of cancer a number of years ago. As a smart man with a fair bit of success, he was able to access the best that both conventional and complementary medicine had to offer, before finally passing away a couple of years ago. Due to his being able to fly to California to a pain management clinic, he was prescribed medical marijuana. I am convinced that it extended his life and gave his final years a profoundly higher quality than if he had not be able to access the medical marijuana. He kept his appetite and weight up, and his pain levels down, almost until the end.


Please send me your thoughts to schsdistrict118@aol.com.


Finally, our thoughts and prayers go out to my friends Al and Shannon Stokes. Their son, Collin, unexpectedly passed away last week. Al is the long-time manager of the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

From The House

Bluffton Today

Most people understand that the job of the General Assembly is to make the laws of the state, and provide for the financing and implementation of those laws. We also, when needed, will make certain that state programs, a reflection of your will as expressed through your legislature, are being carried out in an efficient and prudent manner.


Currently, the Legislative Audit Council is the feature of the General Assembly that responds to member requests to look at a particular program or agency with an eye toward the aforementioned efficiency and prudence.


As an example of how this works, I will use a recent limited review of the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC). These folks, under Director Perry Simpson, look into allegations of illegal discrimination in the employment area, as well as in the area of housing.


SCHAC receives around $1.6 million in state general funds toward a budget of around $2.242 million. The balance of their funding comes from the federal government in the form of grants and contracts with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as part of the execution and administration of federal and state missions in the respective areas of employment and housing.


SCHAC has a permanent staff and an appointed 9-member governing board. The governor appoints board members, with advice and consent of the Senate. There is one member from each district and two at-large members. One of the longest serving board members is my good friend, Joe Fregale, from Sun City.


The first area of review had to do with staffing and human resources issues. There were no glaring matters of concern, although there was some discussion of the fact that 6 of the 9 investigators had less than two years tenure with the agency. This may be one of the reasons that the average time to resolve cases of alleged discrimination has gone from 202 days to 249 days in the last two years. This may also be fallout from the impact of the Great Recession. The Audit Commission recommended that the staff establish a goal of 180 days for case resolution. They also recommended that position descriptions be clarified.


Auditors also reviewed the agency’s use of grants and other funds, as well as the use of outside resources and consultants. It was determined that the outside resources were generally efficiently used, but there was a minor fiscal issues from FY 12-13 where HUD funds were advanced to take care of unanticipated administrative costs from increased case loads. SCHAC is currently up to date on all accounts.


The Audit Council noted that many of the board members were serving beyond their designated terms because their replacements had not been nominated or seated. The board was also found to be two members short, for the same reason. The recommendation was for the governor to appoint new members.


Finally, the auditors found that some of the paperwork required of the agency was redundant, with a recommendation that the yearly final report requirement be deleted.


As a businessman who has done any number of audits, both formal and informal, I would say that the South Carolina Human Rights Commission came through the process looking pretty good. I commend the director, Perry Simpson, for continuing the good work. I also thank Joe Fregale for his contribution to this important but somewhat thankless work. Those who know Joe are not surprised that any organization he might be tasked to oversee would not stray far from the straight and narrow.


Next week, we will officially be in session. As always, you deserve the real story, and here’s where you’ll find it

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

On this last day of 2014, I am pleased to share with you, my last column of the year. This is also the 624th iteration appearing in this space over the past 12 years. During that time, I have tried to provide some insight into the legislative process we undertake each year, beginning officially on the second Tuesday of January.


The most important thing we do is prepare and execute a spending plan. It is important, in my view, for constituents to understand how much we spend and how much we put aside. The budget is a pretty clear statement of what we think is important. The column goes a long way in telling you why it’s important.


Another thing I like to do with the column is to spotlight certain issues either locally, or statewide, that need attention. We have rallied support to protect Pinckney Point, for example, from unwise development. We organized public meetings with the proper regulatory agencies to draw attention to the issues that made its development unwise. Years later, I used the column to encourage popular support that prompted Beaufort County to finally purchase Pinckney Point using their highly regarded Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program.


I have deep trust, that given the basic facts and a coherent rationale, the electorate and their representatives at all levels will do the wise, just, and productive thing, nearly every time. Whether it is a matter of discouraging the legislature from allowing our state to become the nuclear waste dump for the world, or encouraging our Jasper County constituents to demand positive change to their education system, the column has been a valuable tool.


That said, having a megaphone for my views is far from the most important feature of the column. Of exponentially more value, is the fact that this column is the beginning of a weekly conversation with you, the informed and engaged electorate. Each Wednesday, usually around noon or so, I start to receive comments, suggestions, requests for further information, and sometimes criticism or occasionally, outraged criticism. There are always at least 10 emails or calls, with a maximum of around 300-350 responses, with an average of 30-50 well-reasoned, articulate contributions.


For this representative, to be able to consistently tap the information, experience and wisdom of our extraordinary community is valuable almost beyond measure. To take the most conservative, low-ball estimate of serious weekly comments, say 30, and multiply by 624 columns, we get a big number. That big number is not only a weekly sample of community concerns, it also is powerful evidence for support when we are putting together the budget.


To take a very simple example: When the entry to Sun City from Highway 278 became a dangerous intersection, then-Beaufort County Councilwoman Margaret Griffin brought me in immediately. When the next budget supplement was being researched and debated in committee, I could put 500 coherent, articulate, constituent emails on the desk of each member in the room. It was a strong piece of evidence that the state and the county needed to address the matter. It took far longer for Margaret and me to coordinate the response between the jurisdictions than to make the decision.


The upcoming session will likely be focused largely on ethics and transportation infrastructure. As I start to report the different measures working through committee, I will get a volume and quality of commentary that will effectively drive a big portion of the deliberation.


The weekly conversation that started over twelve years ago has allowed us, for many years, to punch above our weight. Now that we, as a region and a delegation, are legitimate heavyweights, I’m confident you will see a stronger return on our tax investments, and more of our conservative, Lowcountry values reflected statewide. Let’s keep talking.