Monday, October 26, 2009

Emotions, not politics, too often rule in Columbia

October 26, 2009

Tomorrow I will be headed back to Columbia for the special session of the General Assembly. It is necessary that we tweak some of the criteria for the Employment Security Commission to continue the unemployment benefits for some 7,000 South Carolinians for another 20 weeks.

I consulted with the speaker on this issue last week and we agreed that regardless of whatever complexities might arise from a special session, it was imperative that we do what was necessary to extend those unemployment benefits. Too many families were in jeopardy of losing more than had already been lost because of the current recession.

Law making has been correctly compared with sausage making because you might not want to know too much about the particulars of either. However, I want you to have a fair understanding of how the legislature might have adjourned this spring with such a crucial detail left hanging. It also may give you some idea why your legislator is reluctant to become enmeshed in the personal spats that sometimes erupt between public figures. It invariably leads to distraction from our mission, which is to protect the interests of the citizens of our state.

Technically, the director of the Employment Security Commission should have made certain that the legislature was aware of the necessity of the criteria change for the federally sponsored unemployment benefit extension. Unfortunately, the director, Ted Halley, was in something of a battle with the governor and his allies over things that the governor required of the ESC. The governor was also in a battle with the federal government over acceptance of stimulus money, some of which would go to ESC. As the session progressed, more and more of my colleagues were taking side on multiple issues, some ideological and some simply personal.

When eventually there was a bill, submitted by Rep. Kenny Bingham (R-Lexington), that would have fixed the employment benefit problem, it failed to pass because the bill also gave the governor more power over the ESC, and members were already so divided over the various feuds, plus the fact that there was some confusion over whether the bill would commit the house to continuing the increased employment insurance support after the stimulus expired.

There you have it. There is much more, but the bottom line is we have to go back tomorrow and finish our work. Much of my success in the legislature has to do with the fact that I don’t let my emotions drive my policy agenda. My core political belief is that good jobs support strong families. I can also get along with folks with whom I might have fundamental disagreements, and I can get things done with those same folks because, for me, the work is more important than the credit. Unfortunately, when we let these distractions become emotional issues, the work doesn’t get done.

Some good news: As of 1 July 2009, Beaufort County is the home of world famous Kazoobie Kazoos. According to President and COO, Steven Murray, the company has hired a number of employees and occupies 6500 square feet of production and warehouse space on John Galt Road in Beaufort.

I am confident that other companies are going to locate or expand in Beaufort County for the same reasons as Kazoobie. Next week, I will detail some specific things I will be working on to find those companies and attract more good jobs to our area.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The property reassessment process is anything but easy here

Bluffton Today

We have gotten a fair number of calls and emails on the reassessment notices that have recently arrived in the mailboxes of Beaufort County property owners.

While we are always happy to offer information and assistance to constituents, this is primarily a county matter.

Reassessment is mandated by the South Carolina Code of Laws. It calls for a reappraisal and adjustment of valuation of all real property in each county every five years.

Ideally, it should reflect changes in the current market value of each property to insure fairness in the taxation process.

If we lived in an area where property values were fairly stable, the reassessment process would be easy, and there would not be that many surprises when we open that letter from the county. Unfortunately, parts of Beaufort County have seen some very wild swings in valuation in the last few years. This adds a measure of complexity to the process.

Adding somewhat to an already complex situation is Property Tax Reform Act 388. This law was a response to the escalating valuations, especially during the real estate bubble, where some folks saw their assessments double or triple over a five-year reassessment period.

Act 388, among other things, limits the increase in the valuation of a property to 15% of the last reassessment, unless the property has been improved, transferred or sold.

As you might imagine, this has led to some big discrepancies in the taxation on similar houses in the same neighborhood. It also has served as something of a brake on home sales, especially concerning to my friends in the real estate business.

While Act 388 is up for review in the next session, and will most likely be extensively worked over, for today your reassessment is capped at 15% if you meet the criteria. If not, you may want to get in touch with the county assessor’s office for a more detailed explanation, including how you may appeal your reassessment.

For general information, the best place to start is the county website, www.bcgov.net.

You can also get up with County Assessor Ed Hughes at P.O. Box 1508, Beaufort, SC 29901-1508. His phone is: 470-2522 and fax is 470-2512. The Bluffton office is located at 4819 Bluffton Parkway, in the Myrtle Park Building, room 220. The phone there is 757-1500, extension 236, and the fax is 757-1046. The Hilton Head office is located at 539 William Hilton Parkway, room 106. The phone there is 341-8411, and the fax is 341-2811.

Yesterday was the big kick-off for the Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival. There was a great boat parade and a gospel sing, with everyone having a fantastic time.

The event runs every day through next Sunday. For all the information, go to: www.blufftonartsandseafoodfestival.com. For example, today there is a “lunch and learn” event at the Waddell Mariculture Center in Greater Bluffton. My pal, Al Stokes, will lead a tour of the world-class facility at 10 this morning, which will be followed by a Bluffton Oyster Company seafood buffet (also world-class) on the grounds overlooking the Colleton River at Victoria Bluff. Call 815-6278 for a reservation.

Every day there is something equally cool and interesting going on, culminating Saturday and Sunday with the art fair on and around beautiful Calhoun St.

Friends, this is the real deal. It is Bluffton’s week to share its culture, its gorgeous natural landscape, and its inimitable quirky spirit. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Comments on healthcare help guide legislation

Bluffton Today

It has been “all hands on deck” this last week at your legislative office. We received more than 750 calls and emails during this period, an extremely high number for a non-session week. Once again, I asked for your help and you responded.

As for my request for information or a contact person on small businesses looking to relocate, your help has resulted in a load of “actionable intelligence.” Those leads have been passed along to the appropriate agents and contacts are already being made. My thinking on this jobs challenge is that we need to turn over every rock to find the businesses that are the right fit for Beaufort County and District 118. We are utilizing the entire bandwidth of possibilities from calling good locally generated leads, to supporting the good work of Kim Statler and the Lowcountry Economic Network, as well as leveraging my position as chairman of the Economic Development Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee to insure positive attention from the South Carolina Dept. of Commerce. On a meta level, my efforts on the Jasper Port are essentially about jobs, even if those jobs that may be years down the road.

The real call generator, however, was my request for you to send your ideas and suggestions on how we can improve efficiency and lower costs in our current healthcare delivery system. I wanted to hear your stories and benefit from your experiences, and we heard from you loud and clear.

However, there were so many of you that called, we were unable to get a good record of your ideas. I need for you to either email me or write me a letter or note detailing your preferences. Here’s why this is important:

My participation at the Alliance of Health Plans annual healthcare conference will not be passive. I’m not just going to show up, get a badge, and quietly listen to all the new and innovative things the health insurance folks have come up with. I want to arrive prepared to address areas of your concern when it comes to what our health insurance dollars purchase. I want to represent your ideas for reducing or eliminating as much of the waste and seemingly intentional aggravation that we often suffer at the hands of some insurers. For this to happen, we need to be able to organize your information into meaningful statistics, charts and graphs and be able to present it not only to the sponsors of the meeting, but other attendees as well. If we cannot help the health insurance industry do a better, more cost-efficient job of allocating the massive number of dollars they collect from us, I fear that the current reform efforts under way at the federal level will ultimately undermine the viability of the private health insurance industry. The surest way to protect the system is to help the managers understand that questionable business practices and an unsustainable pricing structure do not produce good value for either customers or shareholders.

The streetscaping in Old Town Bluffton is drawing to a close with only a few areas left to finish up. Things are looking great and should be squared away in time for the Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival, which is coming up the 18th to the 25th of October.

Monday, October 5, 2009

It's time to think small on recovering from the recession

Bluffton Today

As usual, we got good calls last week, especially in response to my invitation for small businesses possibly looking for opportunity in the best part of the Lowcountry. If you are involved with a company, even in a small way, and have a contact person who might begin the exploratory process that could ultimately lead the firm to relocate, or even create an annex here, I need to hear from you.

Before our last legislative session, you heard from me an outline of why it was critical for your representative to find a seat on the Ways and Means Committee. You also learned that my sub-committee assignment was as chairman of the group tasked with locating and securing new and expanding businesses for our state.

My motivation in seeking these positions was so that I might bring a focus to my highest legislative priority, which is job creation. The recent economic downturn has added increased urgency to my mission. Chronically high unemployment has diminished our state in every way possible. It affects our tax structure, our social welfare obligations, and even our ability to reform in areas that require profound reworking.

In my view, if we can answer the challenge of creating the business climate that is conducive for economic expansion, we can put our folks to work. In fact, if each small business in South Carolina hired just one more worker, we would have zero unemployment. One of my strategies for addressing this challenge is to tailor economic incentives to bring small businesses to our area and our state.

From where I sit, we have an extensive toolbox with which to help potential partners to see the benefit of joining us. Whether it is attractive and affordable space in the Bluffton Tech Park, or flexible taxation, or the ability to access specialized worker training, we can get it done.

When everyone in our state that needs a job, has a job, I think we can begin to systematically work on other areas of need that cannot even be addressed as we lurch from crisis to crisis.

Speaking of crises, I plan on being a participant at the Alliance of Health Plans annual healthcare conference in December. I need to hear from you on this, as well. What are your ideas on how we can adjust the system to increase efficiency and lower costs? One of my reasons for attending this conference is to see if what I’m hearing from you bears any meaningful relationship to the presentations I will hear at the meeting. In any case, this will be something I will be reporting to you about.

It would be extremely helpful if I could go to the conference with good, solid, workable input from you as individuals, as business owners, or as retirees looking to protect and supplement your current healthcare provisions.

Finally, I had a wonderful visit with the fourth grade class at St. Gregory. It was a pleasure to speak with bright young people with inquisitive minds who also seem to understand that discipline and respect for teachers are prerequisites for a first rate education.

I also got to chat with my friend, Dr. Terry O’Neal, a renaissance man who teaches classic languages. Also impressive was the number of volunteers helping out in every classroom. The value of parental involvement with education cannot be overstated.