Monday, January 26, 2009

Bluffton Today

No more 'boom-or-bust' budgeting

We had our second round of full-fledged budget meetings today. I came away with even more certainty that the financial process in our state is due for an overhaul, sooner rather than later. This boom or bust cycling makes rational budgeting nearly impossible. It creates hardship for our state employees when we have to shrink their missions to accommodate our fluctuating tax receipts.

For example, we had a meeting with the good people from Disability and Special Needs. They provide services for some of our most vulnerable citizens and do a great deal with not a lot of resources. Our job on the committee is to find areas where there are savings or cost efficiencies within their operation. Unfortunately, this usually means that there will be less we can do to help those in our state who really could use a helping hand.

We also had testimony from DHEC. This agency has endured cuts and rollbacks for years as the urgency of their mission becomes greater every day. They are currently working over in Sun City to help Pulte redo large areas of their stormwater system. DHEC support, critical expertise and oversight are crucial to the health of the waterways that receive the outfall from those ponds, not to mention the effect on the residents around the ponds.

DHEC/OCRM is an integral part of the effort to preserve the May River watershed from the degradation that seems to loom on the horizon. Instead of further cutting their budget, I would much prefer they got increases commensurate with their importance in the overall necessity of keeping South Carolina clean and green. Not this year.

We will do what is required to get the budget in balance. However, my hope is that this experience will help us to think more clearly about how we finance our state.

One area where there may be some movement is on the cigarette tax. My sense is that we will consider this option more realistically than we have in the past. Those dollars, if they materialize, should be directed largely toward the Medicaid match. Not only would we draw more federal dollars to the state coffers, we could more effectively address some of the effects of smoking by harnessing the taxes it generates.

One positive note this week is that I had a great conversation with representatives from a light manufacturing company that may be looking to locate in our area. They were particularly impressed with the new tax rules on LLCs that we managed to push through last session. They were also impressed with the packet of materials provided by the Hilton Head Island/ Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. As the port project moves closer to reality, with more and more companies coming to look over our area, the close cooperation we now enjoy between my office, the chamber, and the local governmental entities will assume an even greater importance.

We are talking about jobs, my friends. Good jobs that will allow our children to stay close to home at the completion of their education, if they choose. Jobs that will help us even out the ups and downs of the business cycles. Maybe with a few more good jobs, and a good dose of tax reform, we can avoid another session where our efforts are focused not on making government more efficient and effective, but simply on keeping to afloat.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Watch for 15 Percent Cuts Statewide

In years past, the first week of session was about getting reacquainted with legislative colleagues and friends, as well as viewing legislation in the hopper which I might not have seen. Not so this year. We jumped right into the necessities of making the state government match up to our new economic realities. It was a trying and stressful week.

Being on Ways and Means, the stark realities of this economy come into sharp focus right away. It is no exaggeration to say that the state government will shrink a minimum of 15% this year. This is a profound and painful development. However, many of the business people around the Lowcountry are telling me that business is down, in some cases, twice that much, or more.

Of course it is necessary we cut our state budget to fit our revenues. It would be easier to simply take 15% across the board and be done with it. This is the chainsaw approach. It is also the lazy and irresponsible approach. In fact, the responsible way to manage the reductions is to view each proposed cut, and do a rational cost/benefit analysis. It is time consuming and painstaking work, but anything less is a betrayal of the trust that you have placed with us as lawmakers.

For example, we were tasked with reducing the state portion of the Medicaid match. One of the cuts was to the Hospice benefit. At the sub-committee level we met with Health and Human Services to get a proper read on this matter. As it turns out, the potential saving was negligible, while the consequences to those in need of Hospice services who might not qualify for Medicare or did not have private insurance was catastrophic. It would also be catastrophic for the hospitals that might ultimately have to provide end-of-life care for these folks. The costs in public dollars would also increase by a factor of 20 to 30 times. Your representative and others in the Beaufort County delegation fought for Hospice and prevailed, at least in the House.

One of the positive features of this financial downturn is the apparent lessening of gratuitous partisanship in the General Assembly. There will always be legitimate disagreements between the Majority and Minority parties, which is as it should be. However, much of the silliness we have seen in recent years past has been replaced with a seriousness of mission and what looks to most observers like cooperation between the parties. I don’t want to get too carried away with this, as the session is young and there will be plenty of opportunities for partisan mischief on both sides of the aisle.

One more bit of good news: my friend and colleague, Rep. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort, has been brought on as a whip in the caucus organization. Also, after six years as a whip, your representative is now Chief Majority Whip. This is particularly important as this puts me on the Executive Committee for the House, which formulates legislative directions and procedures that play a big role in managing the work flow of the chamber.

This week, the house is on furlough. Many of our Democratic friends wished to attend the Obama inauguration. As for me, I’ll be back home in Bluffton, doing my best to keep warm.

Monday, January 12, 2009

On with the Show, This Is It...

This is it, folks—show time tomorrow. Session officially starts the second Tuesday of the calendar year at noon. You legislator, however, will be in Columbia by 7:30 a.m. completing preparations that began months ago.

A good portion of what happens in Columbia during the first month of session involves my daily contacts with you for the six months prior to that first gavel. The legislative office averages between 300 and 400 constituent contacts per week, year round. Those meetings, calls, emails, faxes, and letters, for the most part, either request that we consider supporting an issue or that we consider o­ne side or the other of particular legislation. My personal inclinations are often a reflection of the preponderance of sentiment that is expressed in those constituent contacts. The point here is that I am your representative in Columbia and I take my role as such very seriously. What makes our partnership work is the frequency and efficiency of our communication. If you have ideas of how we can make our state work better, you and I need to talk.

As I mentioned several weeks ago in this space, your voice in Columbia recently got a little louder and a little more persuasive with my appointment to Ways and Means Committee. The ideas we take seriously in the legislature are the o­nes that get funded. Ways and Means is where the bulk of those conversations begin and end.

It is unfortunate that many of our conversations in committee this session will be about what we can afford to preserve, in terms of state services. While I remain optimistic for the long run, the more I learn about our economic situation in the near term, the more concerning it becomes. We had some lean times several years ago but our fiscal situation today is entirely another matter. What I hear from the state finance and employment folks is pretty much what I am hearing from you locally. Good, stable, productive companies and businesses are facing very hard decisions. There are about to be some hard adjustments across the board.

We all may feel the pinch for a few quarters but the longer-term visibility, especially for southern Beaufort county and District 118 is looking pretty good. For o­ne thing, there is almost complete unanimity among political and business leaders that the way out of these difficult times is not through more taxes, but by way of well-founded, prudent growth. We are currently seeing the benefits of our economic development strategies relative to new jobs moving to the area, witness the expansion of the CareCore operation in the Tech Park/Buckwalter Place area of Bluffton. This was a direct result of strategic cooperation between my office, and the town of Bluffton, Beaufort County, and the Economic Alliance, under the leadership of Kim Statler.

This model of productive cooperation should become more commonplace, especially since your representative is now chairman of the Economic Development Subcommittee of Ways and Means.

A small housekeeping note: Kathy will have the legislative offices in the Calhoun Street Promenade open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for the immediate future. We have also been having phone problems, so I apologize if you could not get through to us last week. I think we are now back up and, as always, anxious to hear from you.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tough times Open Door For Real Reforms

The constitutionally prescribed date for the beginning of session is the second Tuesday in January (Art III, sec. 9). Friends, that is a week from tomorrow and we have been running hard to get ready.

The economic chickens (so to speak) of 2008 are coming home to roost in 2009. All the assumptions we began the budget season with are long evaporated, and a big portion of our job in the short haul is to adjust the size of state government to fit the dollars we are likely to have. Even those dollars are somewhat speculative right now. In many ways, the state government is something of a trailing indicator of the health of the economy. All those economic catastrophes that you have either read about, or more likely experienced to some degree, are now showing up as plummeting state tax revenues.

The o­nly real up side to all this dislocation is that going forward, I believe it will be easier for me to sell my ideas of realistic fund balances and reserves. As a businessman in a cyclical business, I have always tried to be conservative and prudent in holding a modest reserve to be able to adjust to the unexpected. Even so, the unexpected is always more expensive and lasts longer than o­ne would hope. For years, I have been a legislative exponent of the wisdom gained from those hard lessons. Fortunately, we have paid down the trust fund balances over the last few years. We have also accumulated some small reserves. Those reserves, however, have been overwhelmed by the recession.

This is not to say that everything is doom and gloom. There is no better time to pass needed reforms than when the old system proves itself to be flawed. There is nothing like hard times to help some of my more spendthrift colleagues see the benefits of efficiency and frugality. And as a donor county delegation with an enhanced collection of committee assignments, Beaufort County is in a good position to pursue some of our equity issues that have been allowed to become pretty outrageous, with the Education Finance Act (EFA) formulas being a prime example.

Finally, I want to touch o­n a local issue that needs some attention. The United Way of the Lowcountry is having a tough time making their fundraising goal. The economic downturn has diminished their normally robust donor base. These folks run a tight ship and provide funding for a whole raft of good services, many of which are facing cuts from other sources as well. Don’t wait for them to call you or your company. In Bluffton and Hilton Head, the number to call is 686-4304. Call the number and the volunteer will tell you where to send your check. Times are hard but if you can afford it, make the call and send a check. Begin your new year with a gift that will help take care of the home folks.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Voter Calendar 2009

Board of Elections & Registration15 John Galt RoadP.O. Drawer 1228Beaufort, SC 29901 -1228
Office (843) 470-3759 Fax (843) 524-0617 Toll Free (866) 851 8683

Wed.-Sat., January 28-31, 2009 SCARE Conference, Myrtle Beach
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Board Meeting, CHELSEA 3:00 p.m.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 Board Meeting, CHELSEA 3:00 p.m.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Board Meeting, CHELSEA 3:00 p.m.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 Town of Port Royal Election
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Canvass Hearing, 11 a.m. Voter Reg. Conf. Rm
Tuesday, May 19, 2009 Town of Port Royal Election Run-Off (If Necessary)
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Canvass Hearing, 11 a.m. Voter Reg. Conf. Rm (If Necessary)
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 Board Meeting, CHELSEA 3:00 p.m.
2 Friday, July 3, 2009
Independence Day (OFFICE CLOSED)
Wednesday, August 26, 2009 Board Meeting, CHELSEA 3:00 p.m.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Wednesday, September 23, 2009 Board Meeting, CHELSEA 3:00 p.m.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Board Meeting, CHELSEA 3:00 p.m.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Town of Bluffton Election
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Canvass Hearing, 11 a.m. Voter Reg. Conf. Rm
Wednesday, November 11, 2009 Veterans’ Day (OFFICE CLOSED)
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Town of Bluffton Election Run-Off (If Necessary)
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Canvass Hearing, 11 a.m. Voter Reg. Conf. Rm (If Necessary)
Thurs.- Fri. , Nov. 26-27, 2009
Thanksgiving Day & Heritage Day (OFFICE CLOSED)
Thurs. - Fri., Dec. 24-25, 2009 Christmas Eve & Day (OFFICE CLOSED)
1. This is a tentative schedule. You will be notified of any changes.
2. Whenever a recognized holiday falls on a Saturday, the preceding Friday is observed as the holiday. Whenever a recognized holiday falls on a Sunday the succeeding Monday is observed as the holiday.