Monday, March 30, 2009

Share your thoughts on pari-mutuel betting

Bluffton Today

We are having a bit of trouble with email going to the web site. Until we get it fixed, please send your traffic to herbkersmanb@scstatehouse.net.

There are several items we are tracking with regard to your preferences and we need to have good contact.

Speaking of contact, I asked for your comments on the pari-mutuel issue and you, as always, let me hear it loud and clear.

In fact, as of this writing (Wed. night), we have received more than 150 responses. I would like to run this poll for at least another week or two so that all who wish to express themselves may do so. At this point, the numbers are running almost 8 to 1 in favor of some form of pari-mutuel betting. I am extremely interested in how District 118 compares to other coastal districts, as this has become an issue in the Coastal Caucus.

The raw numbers may be running heavily in favor of gambling, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good, persuasive arguments on both sides. My friend, Judy Whelan, is opposed to the dog and horse racing possibilities because of her contention that these events lead to cruelty to animals, or are cruelty per se.

While I am not familiar enough with the mechanics of either sport to have an informed opinion, I do believe that treatment of animals will be a part of this conversation if it advances past the polling stage.

Gambling of another sort is also up for discussion during this session. As most of you know, our state has gambling laws on the books from the 1800s that may have seemed reasonable for that time, but are long since archaic and untenable.

Several charities have requested we revisit and update these statutes to be more relevant to our time. My Rotary friends, my Knights of Columbus friends, as well as my fellow Hibernians want to conduct their raffles and charity events without the threat of sanctions from the 19th century spoiling the fun.

The problem is how we can legally adjust our laws to allow harmless forms of gambling while disallowing the more pernicious forms, such as video poker.

Once again, I want you to share your experience and wisdom. This is a separate but related issue to the pari-mutuel betting conversation. Please let me hear your thoughts on this.

I was able to have a nice visit with Dr. Jane Upshaw at the Carolina Action Network’s Annual Carolina Day at the State House this past Wednesday.

Dr. Upshaw is a first class representative of USC-B as well as our entire area. In fact, she was named Women College President of the Year a couple of weeks ago.

We are working to keep higher education funding coming to the Lowcountry and Dr. Upshaw is our most effective weapon in that struggle.

There is some good news on the horizon regarding the Jasper Port. I want to publicly recognize and express gratitude for the excellent work put in by my colleague, Senator Tom Davis, on this essential project.

Tom has been there from day one, either as the governor’s chief of staff or as a member of the senate, moving the ball down the field.

Lastly, despite the construction, Old Town Bluffton is open for business, and from all indications, business is good.

Monday, March 23, 2009

When the economy goes to the dogs, call in the horses

Bluffton Today

Traditionally, the months of January and February are devoted to the budget. We wrestle it through, and then we get down to other business.

This year (and mostly likely next year, as well), things have been dramatically different. Our budget woes are of a different magnitude that even very senior legislators have seen. Consequently, the "other business" we are looking at is how to generate more revenue for the immediate future so we are not caught in the box of using short-term dollars for long-term obligations.

Stimulus money, rearranging our debt, and raiding the trust funds, are not examples of my idea of sound financials.

What I’m talking about is revenue to support those functions of the state that you have a right to expect from us, such as education, health and human services, roads and bridges, judiciary and prisons, and a host of other essential services. Currently, we can’t support these core functions at a creditable level.

The obvious answer is to raise taxes. It is also the wrong answer. We have the second highest unemployment rate in the country and a plummeting economy that could very easily be further damaged by extracting more tax dollars from our people. Even if the economy were not foundering, raising taxes is my personal "least favorite" option.

Let me say at this point that there are currently a lot of ideas bouncing around the state house seeking support. I am going to report on one idea that might offer some attractive possibilities, as it would be a good multiplier for many of the tourism related assets we now enjoy.

That idea is pari-mutuel betting. Horse racing, dog racing, jai alai, and the remote versions of gambling that are related to these events, have a large and dedicated following. Many of these folks pass through South Carolina on the way to Florida because they want to play golf, go to the beach, but also enjoy gambling at state sanctioned pari-mutuel venues. These visitors provide Florida with hundred of millions of tax dollars each year directly from gambling, not even counting the accommodations and hospitality revenues to local governments.

Having said all that, I know our state has recent experience with video poker that was hardly salutary. However, comparing the very low end of the gaming spectrum represented by video poker with the higher end associated with pari-mutuel betting is not an instructive comparison. Another contrast is that pari-mutuel betting would have a strong supporting effect on our existing visitor offerings, such as golf, tennis, kayaking, and beach related fun. It’s certainly worth thoughtful and serious consideration.

Which is what I’m asking you today. What do you think? Would horse racing be a good fit for Jasper County, or dog racing or jai alai for Georgetown or Myrtle Beach? Is this something we need to study, perhaps getting some hard figures so we can do a proper cost/benefit analysis? Is it a bad idea from the get-go?

Let me know. Shoot me an email, or give me a call. Better yet, write a letter to the editor detailing experience you have had in other places with pari-mutuel betting.

I believe in the wisdom of the seemingly chaotic marketplace of ideas. I have made a pretty good political career taking your expressed wisdom to Columbia with me. You’ve never let me down. This is why we call it the House of Representatives.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beaufort County Delegation played good defense at budget time

Bluffton Today

The budget fight on the House side is effectively over. We passed the ugly beast, sent it over to the Senate side, and now are going to take a week off to try and regain out composure.

I have given you a bit of a play by play in the last few weeks with regard to how we managed to protect our core functions while still dealing with the fact that the state is not collecting nearly as much revenue as we have in the last few years. I have also shared my discomfort with having to fall back on budgetary gimmicks and stopgaps to create a spending plan that doesn’t cripple our chances for recovery.

We have made good use of the stimulus dollars. Unlike many who are reluctant to take the Federal money, my problem is that it is simply bad policy to use non-recurring money to pay for recurring expenses. We are going to have to repay the Federal stimulus funds just like everyone else. I certainly don’t want to repay dollars that brought us no benefit. That sort of ideological rigidity plays well when we are flush, but rings a little hollow when we are looking at releasing felons because we can’t afford to keep the prisons open.

If there is one thing that comes out of this current economic mess, it must be a greater seriousness among my colleagues with regard to reforming our antiquated system of taxation.

In large measure, your Beaufort County Delegation did the heavy lifting that resulted in a budget that was not nearly as locally severe as it could have been. We took a hit in the aid to subdivisions, but not anything like the early proposals. My conversations with Chairman Newton helped me to convey the seriousness of the county’s financials to my colleagues on Ways and Means. The result was a more moderate reduction than anticipated.

We were also able to adequately fund our local tourism efforts. Sometimes, it is a hard sell to convince our inland neighbors that visitors and tourism are the reason that Beaufort County and a few others are perennial donor counties. We were greatly aided in holding the line on tourism marketing appropriations by several visits from key business leaders, as well as good work by the Chambers of Commerce.

Speaking of key business leaders, I had a great dinner meeting with the Hilton Head Island and the Beaufort contingents of the Home Builders of South Carolina last week. We had a good strategy session about what the legislature can do to help pull the local economy out of the ditch. I was pleased to get to have a chat with a Bluffton entrepreneur, John Guffey Jr, who is president of Energy One, a spray foam insulation company on Red Cedar Street. Energy conservation has been one of my long time interests and John knows his stuff about how foam insulation fits into the big picture of the new green economy.

We had over 400 constituent contacts in the last two weeks. As I mentioned, the House is off this week, so I will be around the office attending to local business. It might be a good time for you to come by and let me know what’s on your mind. Find out why it’s called the House of Representatives

Monday, March 9, 2009

'Business as usual, only smaller'

Bluffton Today

My dad used to say there are three kinds of Fairs: “There’s the State Fair; the County Fair; and what you think is fair.”

Until very recently, I didn’t know what he meant. I’m starting to get it.

As the budget begins to take shape in this extremely severe financial climate, the process is being largely driven by what is least unfair, perhaps by what is least catastrophic, not by normal budgetary considerations.

It is certainly unfair to close half the prisons—it’s unfair to the counties and municipalities to eviscerate their budgets by rolling our troubles downhill to them in the form of unacceptable levels of reductions in aid to subdivisions. It is unfair to deplete the resources that support the most vulnerable of our citizens who depend on the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs. It is unfair and shortsighted to gut our state support to schools.

What we being compelled to do is assemble a patchwork of one-time and short-term financial resources, and mold them into a budget that will allow state operations to move forward in something resembling business as usual, only smaller. For example, we have a huge insurance reserve fund, from which we will have to borrow. We can use the stimulus reimbursement for the Medicaid payment we have already made, as a one-time adjunct to the general fund. I have explained how we can use the cigarette tax as a two- year backfill to the budget.

Obviously, none of these stopgap measures give me any degree of comfort or satisfaction. I have been in the legislature long enough to remember the last time we had to “raid the trust funds.” It was not pretty then and took years to get sorted out. The practice of using non-recurring dollars to fund recurring expenses is one that I have railed against for years. Now, I sit on Ways and Means Committee trying to figure out the least damaging way to do what I have always opposed. Friends, we are truly living in interesting times.

One of the more encouraging aspects of this current economic dislocation has to do with the advise we get from the folks that come to visit us from the home front. Last week, we had a good contingent from the Beaufort County School Board up for a visit.

Chairman Washington and his colleagues didn’t come to Columbia asking for the world. They understand the situation, and a spirit of shared sacrifice, which we are seeing quite often of late, animated their visit and their advice. Likewise, we saw my county council friends, Jerry Stewart and Laura Von Harten last week. They had good suggestions as to how we might do more with less at the local level, while still not cutting too deeply into core functions of the county.

You may remember that I chair the Economic Development Subcommittee of Ways and Means. There are some bills of local concern that I have been working on with Kim Statler, Executive Director of the Lowcountry Economic Network, that are currently moving through subcommittee. These are jobs related measures about which I will have more to report as they advance toward the floor.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Don't look to Columbia to 'save the May'

Bluffton Today

I was gratified to hear that so many concerned and motivated Bluffton area residents made the bus trip to Beaufort last week. It was necessary and proper that Beaufort County Council got to hear directly from you and your neighbors about the problem with the fecal coliform levels in the May River, and how potential shellfish closures in the headwaters of the river are unacceptable.

The next night at Bluffton Town Council, the turnout was equally vocal and insistent. The health of the river is not simply another task among the many with which the town is charged. It is the highest priority by a wide margin.

It is my understanding that both town and county councils got a clear, unambiguous message from the folks: Clean up the May River!

While this civic action was under way, I was in Columbia carrying a different version of the same message to DHEC, DNR, and other parties with responsibilities in this area.

As a matter of fact, we have scheduled Town of Bluffton engineer Jeff McNesby, Assistant Manager Tim Bennett, and several other town employees to appear in Columbia to help explain the situation to my legislative colleagues, as part of my efforts to help assure potential financial support for the mission.

This is a textbook example of how our system is supposed to work. The citizenry makes their will known to the political leaders, who in turn focus the attention of staff on the matter in question.

This situation is a little more complicated in that locally, the river and its health are the responsibility of both the Town of Bluffton and the county, with additional oversight by the state. It is imperative that all jurisdictions cooperate in this cleanup effort and bring it to an efficient and satisfactory conclusion.

I want to commend both Chairman Newton and Mayor Sulka for their willingness to accept this complex, difficult, and potentially costly challenge. I, of course, will try to bring the state along in whatever capacity is appropriate.

Realistically, however, this is likely to be largely a demonstration of local creativity and ingenuity solving a local problem.

Last week, I shared my thoughts on how we will probably end up muddling through the state budgetary crisis. It looks more and more like a hybrid of state funding cuts, supplements that will include a cigarette tax, as well as some decreased aid to subdivisions, which are cuts to what we send to counties and municipalities.

Let me be clear: I don’t think tax increases will pull us out of this recession. However, the cigarette tax has been in the works for a long time and is probably the most palatable option on the revenue side. As I said last week, the cigarette tax dollars will temporarily backfill the budget before being reallocated to more appropriate purposes, namely health care, Medicaid, and insurance, in a maximum of two years.

You will see, very shortly, a proposal to Ways and Means from the Beaufort County Delegation encapsulating the above. As primary author of the proposal, I am still working the numbers and gauging the distribution of impacts to the state, to Beaufort County, and District 118. There will be fight, but we currently occupy the high ground. I will keep you apprised.