Monday, April 27, 2009

Keep going with what works

Bluffton Today

As the session starts to go into its final lap, we are working on the statewide issues that must be completed. In addition, I am also focusing on the particulars of the many economic development initiatives that will benefit our area in both the long and short runs. Many of these I have outlined for you in previous columns and most are in cooperation with Kim Statler, the outstanding head of the Lowcountry Economic Development Network.

Those of you who may be regular visitors to this space in your Monday paper know that economic development and the associated jobs that come along with economic development are a big part of my effort on your behalf.

My reasoning is this: an area with good, well-paying, stable jobs is a place with stronger families, lower crime, higher quality of life and all the things we want our community to be.

With a strong local economy, we can afford to spend more on educating our children, as well as offering all the adjuncts to education that make the experience richer. This, in turn, prepares the young folks for a productive work life close to home, if that is what they choose.

Consequently, if you hear me go on and on about economic development and job creation, I hope you will bear with me. In my view, it’s what makes our community work, so to speak.

One of the drivers of the economy in the Old Town is the art business. Many of the visitors you see walking the streets and filling the restaurants are here because of our interesting collection of artists and galleries. None is more interesting than my friend Amos Hummell.

Amos is not only a painter of note, but a performer and educator as well. In fact, he is putting together a proposal that will combine arts education, performance and exhibition opportunities in and around the Old Town. This will build on the programs already in place at SOBA (Society of Bluffton Artists) and the workshops and seminars offered by the various galleries. Amos is not one to think small so a whole lot of community involvement will be required to bring his vision to fulfillment. When you see him, ask about it. Amos may change some lives with his big ideas.

It makes sense to leverage what is already working as far as tourism and the visitor economy is concerned, to enlarge and diversify the effect of the arts, as well as historic preservation, natural history and local seafood to create an interesting intersection between our place and our economy.

Let me say a few words about the May River situation. I attended a good meeting last week with Mayor Sulka, Chairman Newton, and Senator Davis, along with key staff people and representatives from DHEC. The topic was the long-term sustainability of the May River and Larry and Tina Toomer’s oyster operation.

I was encouraged by the determination among these bright folks to do whatever is necessary to save the estuary over the long haul and to protect the viability of the Toomer’s operation while we get this problem sorted out. To that end, I believe Sen. Davis and I can offer some modest legislative help, as well as direct some environmental protection dollars to the town and the county.

I will keep you apprised on this and all critical developments in our portion of the Lowcountry.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Heritage success bodes well for tourism season

Bluffton Today

Nature and excellent organization combined to give us one of the most memorable golf tournaments in recent memory over on Hilton Head Island.

The Verizon Heritage at the Harbour Town Golf Links was not immune to the current economic dislocation, but reports from around the area seem to point to better than expected business activity generated by the event. As the traditional kick-off to the tourist season in our part of the Lowcountry, the Heritage success certainly bodes well for the local economy in the coming months.

Even with heavy construction along May River Road, the last few weeks have seen a steady stream of visitors to Old Town Bluffton. There were several recent corporate events at Palmetto Bluff, along with Easter vacations and Spring Break for the college kids that seemed to have Calhoun Street buzzing. With the Farmer’s Market coming to the Carson Cottages on Calhoun Street this week, businesses in Old Town Bluffton have every reason to look forward to a good season.

I want to thank my friends Don Ryan and Chris Long at CareCore National for the tremendous presentation they put together for some special visitors to the Lowcountry, as well as a group of my legislative colleagues. CareCore, as you may know, is the anchor tenant in the Bluffton Tech Park. They, along with CEO Don Ryan, have been instrumental in helping us attract interesting and appropriate business concerns to the Bluffton area.

As chairman of the Economic Development Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, I have dealings with a number of companies seeking to relocate to our state. It is invaluable to be able to refer them to a successful company such as CareCore, which has recently moved a good portion of its operation to the Bluffton area. They have good answers to all the questions that these companies may have about relocating to a high potential area such as ours.

The remainder of the session will be marked by a good deal of furlough time. This presents some unique challenges for your representative and your delegation. It is good that I can spend more time on constituent service, but not so good when it comes to pushing through our legislative agenda.

Working the phone is something I do pretty well, but it’s a lot more convenient to walk over to a fellow legislator’s desk and have a conversation about how we might be able to assist one another in doing the people’s business. One of the positives of the truncated session is the Coastal Caucus has become more organized and more energized. We have scheduled meetings every month through Sept., covering everything from environmental concerns to how we can get more bang for the buck from our tourism dollars.

We are still seeing customer service numbers around 350 contacts per week. Fortunately, the office staff has become so good and so accustomed to the higher level of correspondence; we still have excellent turn around. If you have a question or concern, give us a call, an email, or visit in person. We can help.

Monday, April 13, 2009

State did its job on EMS oversight

Bluffton Today

This week I’d like to begin with a few comments about our state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) along with its Commissioner, Earl Hunter. In particular, I want to address a report that came from DHEC relating to an incident in Bluffton where one of our neighbors was beaten and injured.

The report had to do with the response of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and how they handled the case. While the county is the employer of the EMS technicians, the state is responsible for ensuring that proper protocols and procedures are uniformly applied throughout the state.

The incident was reported in the papers, along with comments from interested parties questioning whether the EMS personnel working the case adhered to proper procedure or exercised good judgment in the execution of their duties. The county responded immediately with its own investigation and requested that DHEC also look into the matter, as well.

Serious questions were asked that triggered a serious, comprehensive response from the supervising parties, as it should.

When the DHEC report was issued, there was criticism from several quarters that it appeared sketchy and didn’t adequately address several key areas of concern. My conversation with Commissioner Hunter revealed that the report was guided by the facts of the case but also there were many places where disclosure of certain details would violate privacy laws designed to shield the parties from potential harm or unwarranted embarrassment.

My take on this was to go to the privacy statutes and see for myself whether the public’s right to know should trump the public’s right to be protected. The result of my search was something of a mixed bag, with some portions of the law being absolutely necessary, some dubious but justifiable, and some simply need to be revisited.

As to the report in question, I found it to be fair, accurate and presented in a timely fashion, within the constraints of applicable law. This is pretty much what I conveyed to Commissioner Hunter.

One of the things that I am constantly looking out for is how the different levels of government deliver the services they are mandated to provide. Are the elected officials and senior managers providing the proper guidance and support to those on the front lines who are engaged in inspecting for building code compliance, or cleaning the ditches on the sides of the roads, or designing and building those roads?

I want to make sure we in government are the solvers and preventers of problems and not just part of the problem.

I want to remind you that Heritage is upon us and we need to be on our best behavior with regard to visitors. They are here to support our economy while they enjoy the beauty of the Lowcountry landscape. The golf tournament is a splendid event with history and spectacle, but the real heart of the matter is about southern hospitality and charm. Even with earthshaking construction on May River Road, Bluffton exemplifies much of the best of what makes us who we are. Please do your part. Be nice.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Smoking taxes set fire under budget reformation

Bkuffton Today

We had a pretty busy week, as there was a lot of interest in some of the bills coming forward, primarily the tobacco tax. In fact, we had well over 600 constituent contacts for the week.

Fortunately, the email problem with the web site has been corrected. A fair portion of our contacts are via the web site, which gives us a little flexibility in handling the traffic. Nonetheless, the legislative staff did a superb job in making sure that everyone’s issues were properly addressed, calls and emails were returned, and the mail was answered.

With regard to the cigarette tax, I think some explanation is warranted. This is a measure that has been in the works for some time and nearly everyone in the legislature has been in varying stages of agreement with its necessity for years. Unfortunately, it has been the subject of posturing and positioning on other issues, with the result being that the budgetary crisis finally pushed us into doing what we knew was the right thing all along.

In my view, the cigarette tax is about as close to a user fee as we can get. Ideally, the tax on cigarettes should be used to mitigate the harm done to society by the use of the product. The health effects of tobacco use are no longer controversial. The costs to the state in terms of our Medicaid match alone are driven in part by the effects of smoking. It is reasonable that smokers assume a portion of those costs.

One of the interesting features of a cigarette tax is that it usually drives down the percentage of smokers in the population, mostly by financially discouraging young folks from starting to smoke. Even though our projected tax is comparatively modest, there will be a decrease in smoking that will ultimately reduce our health care costs as we go forward.

The experience in Canada as they began a program of escalating tobacco taxes, was that the health effect was so dramatic that they had to rewrite their actuarial tables because the average person started living appreciably longer. We will never, of course, raise our level of taxation anywhere close to Canada’s, but the relationship between the tax and usage is informative.

One of the things we will notice is that, over time, we will collect fewer tobacco tax dollars because of the drop off in smoking. As a member of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, I will be vigilant in making certain we anticipate that decrease as we prepare our spending plan. In truth, this downturn has had the effect of forcing a degree of rationality on our taxation structure.

Paradoxically, by having to use non-recurring dollars for recurring obligations, as well as a host of other makeshift budgetary techniques, there is much more serious conversation about real reform of the process. My concern is that we will organize a study group and study the problem for years, then put the study on the shelf with all the other studies and never get to the implementation stage. Does that sound familiar?

Regardless, I will continue, on your behalf, to push for fair and modest taxation, coupled with prudent and reasonable spending-- cutting where we can, increasing where we must-- until our budgetary process resembles an efficient and productive service delivery machine. Someday.

For now, state financial restraints dictate a two-week furlough for the legislature. I’ll still be working for you, we just won’t be on the clock.