Monday, February 23, 2009

If you're not on the bus today, you're not helping

Bluffton Today

Today is the day for you to show you care about the May River and the pollution problem that is likely to close a portion of the river to shellfishing. The bus is leaving from Bluffton Village (close to the post office) at 3 p.m. with a group of your friends and neighbors who will attend the Beaufort County Council meeting in Beaufort. They will go on the record as supporting the county/town cooperative effort to deal with this very serious issue. You need to be with them.

Chairman Weston Newton laid out the scope of the problem two weeks ago in an op-ed across from this space. Part of his plea was for the folks to show up at both county council and town council meetings and express to the elected officials the urgent need for immediate and decisive action to reverse this outrage. The time to address the restoration of our river is now.

Friends, when I asked you to fill the high school auditorium on the Pinckney Point problem, you responded and we moved the system. Today, you need to be on the bus to Beaufort and tomorrow you need to fill the Bluffton council meeting. The system needs to be moved again.

I commend Chairman Newton for his crucial and timely leadership on this matter. I also want to recognize Old Town Blufftonians, Babbie Guscio, Jimmy McIntire, and Jacob Preston for their efforts in organizing the willingness of the community to fight for what is ours.

I have also been fighting the budget fight on the battlefield known as Ways and Means Committee. Just as we were coming to grips with the harsh realities of revenue projections, we got an update from our Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) projecting larger shortfalls and for a longer duration that previously expected. Our already grim prospects just got much worse.

I’m going to outline two bad budget alternatives, followed by one that is somewhat less bad, in my view.

The first alternative is to dramatically cut the "aid to subdivision," which is the revenue collected by the state and shared with the counties and the municipalities. This would hit Beaufort County to the tune of $5-7 million. Chairman Newton and I discussed this option at length. We agreed that this would be the state politicians kicking the catastrophe down to the counties, who have even less flexibility than the state. Not a productive alternative.

Secondly, we could cut the state functions across the board. Unfortunately, the percentage of the cut would need to be in excess of 50%. Those are not cuts-- they are amputations.

The third option I also hate, but somewhat less than the first two. The plan is to raise the cigarette tax by fifty cents a pack, moving the revenue, along with the stimulus contribution, to backfill the budget for a maximum of two years. We would then phase the tobacco revenue into a more appropriate area, which is healthcare, Medicaid, smoking cessation, and insurance support. This would essentially allow the state to remain in its core functions until we recover our financial footing. Ideally, we would also recover our misplaced conservative budgetary prudence.

While much of this last option violates my deepest principles, I’m just not prepared to close half the prisons, inspect only half the nursing homes, fix only half of the few roads we currently fix, or slash our already meager support for education. This downturn has forced me, and many of my more thoughtful, serious colleagues into becoming what might be called "pragmatic conservatives."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Legislators hope to simply 'hold the line'

Bluffton Today

This recession looks like it may be with us for a while. As a consequence, much of our work in the General Assembly is to simply hold the line and not allow those most deeply affected by the economy to fall too far. This includes our most vulnerable citizens, who by virtue of age or infirmity, cannot get by without meaningful assistance.

We also are trying to hold the line on segments of the economy, such as real
estate, that are particularly hard hit by the downturn. To that end, we have been working on repealing the point-of-sale reassessment feature that was part of an earlier attempt at tax overhaul which has had unintended consequences as the industry has gone into hibernation.

While it looks like we are going to get the repeal of point-of-sale, it is useful to remember that this was intended as an offset for the 15% cap on increases in assessments in the usual 5-year reassessment period. What this points to, in my view, is the absolute necessity of addressing the taxation issue comprehensively, rather than piecemeal, as we have in the past. For now, we are in somewhat of an economic triage situation that does not lend itself to big structural changes, no matter how badly needed.

We managed to get through the Payday Lending Bill, which put a few limits on these very high interest, short-term loans. While virtually no one is happy with the bill, it is an improvement on the status quo, and short of outlawing the industry; we have done what we can, for now.

I am introducing a measure, the Consumer Protection Bill of 2009 that incorporates elements that my friends from AARP have been requesting for some time. I remember discussing questionable banking fees and related matters eighteen months ago with my friend Eileen Brenner from Sun City, and more recently with Elaine Lust, of the Silver Haired Legislature.

Some bank policies are confusing and some are very close to intentionally confusing with regard to late fees and related issues. There is also a problem with the approval times on short sales that needs to be addressed. Both banks and consumers will benefit from having more clarity in the process. With the current economic uncertainty, these matters take on a great urgency for families in difficulty.

Also related to the economic uncertainty, this time on the educational front, is the Emergency Education Funding Act of 2009. This is a bill I am currently working on that will mandate that scarce education funding will have to be spent from the classroom up, rather than from administration down.

What this means is the needs of the classroom teacher will be met first, and then, and only then, will dollars flow to administrators. I am constantly frustrated that the classroom teacher, even in good times, is at the bottom of the food chain, while shouldering the primary responsibility for our children’s educational success. As funding diminishes, the situation worsens. This bill is a common sense response to apparently skewed priorities.

Ending on a lighter note, the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce Leadership Class of 2009 was up for a visit. Among the aspiring leaders was my good friend and neighbor, Mary Gwinn Vaux. We had a nice chat about Bluffton that made my day.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Here's what the annexation bill does and doesn't do

Bluggton Today - February 9, 2009

It was a brutal week for us in the public service business. Probably not too different from your week, either. It’s tough all over.

We had over 400 calls and contacts at the legislative offices this week, many having to do with my annexation bill. People are concerned that they will be absorbed into a municipality against their will, and without a chance to vote on the matter.

My friend Paul McCue is circulating a petition that reflects that fear, and almost 70 signatures have been gathered as of this writing.

My bill, as currently written, does none of the things the petition seeks to avoid. It does not allow a municipality to annex residential property without giving the owners an opportunity to vote. What it does is support a common-sense approach to planning by making it prohibitively difficult for tract housing developers to come into an area and pit the different jurisdictions against one to get the best zoning deal, aka "zoning shopping".

It supports the comprehensive planning process by preventing the counties from having to deal with unanticipated changes to the areas for which they are responsible, which usually also wrecks rational revenue forecasting.

What needs to be made plain, however, is that bills in the legislature are living documents that go through a certain refinement and evolution as they navigate the process. My job, as the author and chief sponsor, is to shepherd and protect the bill so that the original intent of the bill is not distorted or diluted by either my colleagues in the house, or by amendments or rewrites in the senate, or offending compromises that may occur in conference committee if there are significant differences in the house and senate versions of the legislation.

I will keep you absolutely up to date as the bill progresses.

I had conversations recently with DHEC officials regarding the status of the May River. Like you, I am concerned and anxious over the possibility that the headwaters of the estuary may be closed to shellfishing before next oyster season. However, I am heartened by the response of the town of Bluffton, led by Jeff McNesby and Kim Jones, to this distressing development.

I was particularly pleased to read the very pointed op-ed from my friend, Weston Newton, chairman of Beaufort County Council. His unambiguous support for the restoration effort is exactly in concert with mine. We cannot allow the processes that are diminishing the river to go unchallenged. We also cannot allow the consequences of development to ruin the natural resources that are the very heart and soul of our community.

Years ago, Weston and I spoke about what I had decided to do with the stormwater system at the Promenade, which was to essentially keep all potential runoff on the property, except for hundred year storms. His take at the time was that it was a good idea that we may have to explore if the current regime proved inadequate. When the chairman says "everything is on the table," I know he means it.

When I say that I will do everything I can to move the state toward doing what is required to return the May River to a pristine condition, I mean it, as well.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bluffton Today - February 2, 2009

There may be a way to save Waddell for awhile

The budget process is unfolding in a manner consistent with what you have been reading and possibly experiencing with regard to the economy. Frankly, I’m not getting a lot of enjoyment from the exercise. Consequently, for at least the duration of this particular column, we are only going to include positive developments.

I’m happy to report that my friend Dr. Jerry Jung, from the Rose Hill neighborhood, has been presented the Associate of the Year award from the South Carolina Cattleman’s Association. Interestingly, Jerry has never owned cattle and is not likely to, especially since the Rose Hill Golf Club has been revitalized. He has, however, had a long career as a scientist working on coming up with better pasture crops on which cattle graze. In fact, Jerry is a noted researcher, author of scholarly papers, and big wheel in his chosen field of study. Also, as we look at different kinds of grasses for possible candidates for biofuel production, a new group of researchers is revisiting Dr. Jung’s earlier work on switchgrasses. Even in semi-retirement, he is still a contributor. Thanks, Jerry.

Another piece of good news is that we are having some success in the appropriations process with the use of the "proviso" to preserve important features of state involvement in our area. A proviso is essentially a qualification or restriction to the use of appropriated funds. It is a manipulation of the budget process that provides a certain level of accountability within the process while accomplishing certain worthy objectives.

For example, the state money for DHEC-OCRM participation in the water monitoring in the May River estuary was to be included in across-the-board cuts to the agency. Fortunately, with the use of a proviso, we were able to direct money from the overall agency appropriation to that particular purpose.

Likewise, we may be able to keep the Waddell Mariculture Center open, which will buy some time for the political and fundraising efforts on behalf of the facility to bear fruit. If you have not signed the petition, please do.

Also, there are a number of events on the grounds of the center in the near future, which you may wish to attend. I will have more info in later columns.

After hearing from the folks at Disabilities and Special Needs, we put in a proviso to use modular ramps going into the homes of people with restricted mobility that qualify for state support. The state had been using wooden ramps built onto the homes, which eventually would be removed and thrown away.

We found that by using modular aluminum ramps instead, not only did they offer better service, they could be reused several times and were much more cost effective, as well as keeping a great deal of material out of the landfill.

If there is a positive side to our current situation, it is that we have to give greater thought to efficiency and cost effectiveness. If we can learn to get along with less and still accomplish our mission in the tough times, we can remember those strategies and work-arounds when we are not quite so fiscally challenged. The residue of shared difficulty should be better, more frugal, and more efficient government.