Monday, March 29, 2010

Working for transparency

Bluffton Today

One of the things that seems to bother people who keep up with what their elected officials are up to is this idea of anonymous voting. A big part of understanding whether you are getting good service from your senator or representative, is knowing how they vote on different matters — especially matters that involve revenue.

I was a forceful co-sponsor of a bill (H.3047) that passed the house last week that spoke directly to those concerns. In fact, the bill has been around for some time and was not that popular with members who were used to getting things done without having to make too many explanations.

Your representative is not only a member of the Ways and Means Committee but also a ranking member of the Rules Committee. Anticipating a certain amount of resistance to this level of transparency, last year we instituted a rule in the House that stipulated that any bill on the contested calendar or involving revenue would require a roll call vote for passage.

H.3047 is a modest blow for greater transparency in that it essentially formalizes and strengthens the intent of the actions of the Rules Committee. My belief is that if you can’t do the people’s business in the light of day, perhaps you should reconsider your tenure, be it on a POA board, town council, State House or White House.

One of the reasons I do this column is that I want to explain to you not only how I vote, but also why I vote a certain way. Perhaps most importantly, I want to make clear also what certain bills are about and what they mean.

You may have noticed that some bills have names that are not exactly what they are about. My favorite example is the Education Finance Act (EFA), which is generally about financing education, just not in Beaufort County.

Over the next several weeks, I will be going over the budget bill. It will take some time because this thing is simply massive. In an effort to break it down into manageable pieces, I requested staff to summarize and highlight the major features of the bill. The summary is 33 pages. I want you to stay with me on this, if for no other reason than it’s your money and you need to know what is being done with it.

Some quick previews: the total revenue available was just over $5 billion; $55 million went into the capital reserve, $23 million went into debt service, and the Department of Corrections deficit required $50 million. We used federal stabilization funds to meet our match for Medicaid. The state Department of Education received a base reduction of $4 million, while the EFA was reduced by $84 million, which is not a reduction for us since we get nothing from the EFA. The S.C. Charter School Districts received $700 in EFA funding for each student and the department received an additional $900,000 for transportation costs. The Education Department also received $662,000 to purchase new textbooks and other resources for career and technology education.

The National Board Incentives are closed to new applicants as of July 1. Those teachers already certified will continue to receive the stipend for the remainder of their contract. There is currently a new incentive program in the works. So teachers, we appreciate what you are doing, we just have to find a better way to show it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Bills are shot down in the wee hours

Bluffton Today

Last week’s column ended with a pledge to protect and preserve those aspects of the state budget that were favorable to Beaufort County and District 118. I’m happy to say we kept the promise but the effort involved was more than anyone could have anticipated.

The last day of budget debate began for me at a whip meeting at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday and extended until 8 a.m. the following morning. Being chief whip and having my colleague and seatmate, Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, as a whip proved invaluable as more and more amendments came forward, especially in the early hours of Thursday morning. Since there were no breaks, one of us was always stationed so that we could see the information and the amendments as they were going. As whips we are entitled to monitor the proceedings and alert the caucus as to what might be up for vote.

One of the more egregious amendments was put up by Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, which essentially created a state property tax for existing homes valued at more than $200,000. The lion’s share of these dollars would be from the coastal region and at least 40 percent coming from Beaufort County. By Representative Vick’s own estimate, that would raise the average property tax in Beaufort County by $2,000 to $3,000. This foolishness was put up around 4:30 a.m. Thursday and promptly voted down. There were Democratic amendments to repeal tax credits for making homes more hurricane resistant, for energy saving appliances, and the installation of solar panels to reduce reliance on foreign oil. There was even a move to strip out the tax incentives for a company that will manufacture wind turbine parts in the Charleston area. All were voted down.

It made me wonder if the Education Finance Act (EFA) formulas that have essentially denied Beaufort County schools any state funding were passed in the middle of the night back in the mid-1990s.

Perhaps the most curious assault on our interests came from Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington. You may recall from my March 8 column that there is a proviso in the budget that allows the Heritage Foundation to be the beneficiary of excess lending capacity in one of the state self-insurance funds. It is unlikely to be invoked but the measure is a backstop to protect an important driver of the local economy. While I am confident the Heritage Golf Tournament will find appropriate sponsorship, the loan guarantee is a clear signal of public sector commitment to the ongoing success of the event.

Representative Haley, also a candidate for governor, roundly attacked the loan guarantee as taking money from schools and folks with disabilities and a bad thing to do in a down economy. Under questioning from your representative that unfortunately turned rather heated, Representative Haley revealed not only a lack of understanding of the function of the Insurance Reserve Fund (she confused it with another entity), she was unaware of the tens of millions of dollars of direct state revenue from the Heritage, not to mention the comparable indirect dollars going into state coffers. Even after it was laid out for her, she couldn’t seem to understand that tourism pays for a lot of schools (except ours) and supports a lot disabled citizens.

Fortunately, the House of Representatives understood what Representative Haley did not, which is that the Heritage is a jewel of South Carolina tourism. Her measure was rejected by a wide, bipartisan margin.

I will elaborate in an op-ed later this week.

Monday, March 15, 2010

It’s hard to make cuts when everything needs more money

Bluffton Today

We continue to work the budget and try to salvage some level of reasonable continuity in the functions of the state. The current scarcity of dollars makes for mostly hard decisions. We are going over the particulars of the requests of each department in excruciating detail hoping to leave the most essential capabilities intact while paring the less essential.

This is the most difficult part of my job and possibly the most important.

We heard from nearly 400 of you in the last week, largely on budgetary matters. A significant portion of those calls and emails concerned what many perceive as a disproportionate hit to the finances of the Disability and Special Needs Department in comparison to education and some other areas. I am acutely aware that some programs, especially those programs for autistic and other special-needs children, require a certain continuity of care if the participants are to improve.

Part of my effort on behalf of these threatened programs is to constantly research the federal budget for areas where we might take our dollars and match them to U.S. Health and Human Services’ grants, thereby providing at least a floor under the level of care required by our most vulnerable.

I may have located an extra $200 million from the federal government that we must dedicate to autistic and other special-needs populations. I am on this one.

There is currently a proposal on the table to raise the cigarette tax a very modest 30 cents per pack. Other proposals seek higher taxes on cigarettes, which would then be dedicated to a variety of worthy purposes. If cigarette taxes were simply another pot of money to feed the machinery of the state, I probably could not support such a proposal.

The idea that we can tax ourselves out of a recession doesn’t hold much favor with me. However, my belief is that the cigarette tax is in truth a user fee, which should be dedicated to addressing the health consequences of those who smoke. We should raise the cigarette tax to a meaningful level and use those dollars to fund our match to the federal Medicaid program, especially since the poor are disproportionately smokers and diminished accordingly by its damage.

The added benefit to this would be that over time the cost per pack increase would reduce the number of people who choose to smoke, primarily young people who have generally less discretionary income. We would collect less money for Medicaid but our costs would also be lower.

Another area we are exploring is reducing education costs by limiting the number of school districts in the state. The overhead associated with having multiple school districts in a county is essentially taking money out of the classroom. Zero-based budgeting from the classroom up is, for me, one of the answers to the school funding conundrum. We should direct resources first to the classroom and teachers first, and then our money should make its way up to the higher echelons of administration.

I have been actively seeking support for this common-sense approach from the South Carolina Education Association. So far, I have been disappointed.

Next week, it’s more budget Monday through Friday. I will be there for every minute of it, not only to do what’s right for the state, but also to protect Beaufort County and District 118 in preserving what we have.

Monday, March 8, 2010

State won’t let the Heritage fold without a sponsor

Bluffton Today

Before I get into the topic for this week, I want to recognize some good folks from Bluffton. Larry and Judith Hughes have given exceptional service in a number of civic capacities in Bluffton and Beaufort County over the years. They were up in Columbia last week on behalf of the Clemson Extension Service, with which they have a long and productive history. Always good to see Larry and Judith.

I want to give you the facts with regard to the Heritage Classic Foundation and a bill put before the Ways and Means Committee at my request by a friend of Beaufort County, Rep. Brian White from Anderson.

By proviso, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) may access the borrowing capacity of the Insurance Reserve Fund to create, if needed, a $10 million revolving line of credit to insure the viability of the Heritage Golf Tournament.

This capability is a backstop to protect one of our state’s high-producing assets in case the recession runs on longer than anticipated. It provides the Heritage Classic Foundation and the PGA greater flexibility in securing appropriate corporate sponsorship after the current sponsor’s commitment expires after 2011. To be sure, the likelihood that we will need to create this line of credit is almost vanishingly remote, but the economic importance to our community and region of this event is so profound we must have a plan in place to address even an unlikely contingency.

To put some numbers on this, let me distill a study done by PRT and Clemson University in 2006. The numbers are pretty impressive. The total direct expenditures by non-resident spectators of the Heritage were just under $70 million, for a total impact to the local economy of around $80 million. There were 1,250 jobs directly attributable to the tournament, with presumably several multiples of that in ancillary and supporting businesses. The state revenue from the tournament was around $6 million, not counting what came indirectly from ancillary and supporting businesses.

In addition, the Heritage is the grandest, most effective and most efficient vehicle for showing off our incredible Lowcountry to, literally, the rest of the world. It multiplies the impact of all our other marketing to a degree that almost defies quantification.

Needless to say, I was more than a little surprised at the pushback on this. As a businessman, the idea of leaving our highest performing asset uninsured or without a hedge is somewhere between imprudent and unthinkable. My original idea was to tap 30 percent to 50 percent of the direct state revenue on the tournament to maintain and insure the viability of the asset. That will be a fight for next year.

In summary, we have inserted a proviso into the budget that will allow PRT, under certain circumstances, to extend a line of credit to support the viability of the Heritage golf tournament. This is not a line item. It takes no dollars from education or Disability and Special Needs. It is simply a contingency plan to protect one of the big engines of out local and state economy.

If you are unsure how this works, please call or e-mail and I will be glad to share details. As with most of my legislative agenda, it is about jobs, the economy and keeping more of our tax dollars in the Lowcountry.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Polite persistence pays off with stormwater fix

Bluffton Today

Today’s column is dedicated to one of our local residents named Rick McCollough, from Sun City. Rick is a good guy and afriend of mine, but he is also acommunity-spirited citizen who, when confronted with apotentially catastrophic situation, chose to fix the bad situation rather than sit back and complain about it.

The story of McCollough and his colleagues on the Phase Five Lagoon Committee is almost aparable of persistence, prudent marshalling of neighborhood resources and strategic involvement of sympathetic and effective governmental representatives and functionaries.

When it became apparent that the stormwater management system for the neighborhoods in Phase Five of Sun City was neither operating properly nor constructed to the specifications permitted by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, in 2005 McCollough helped put together a committee to petition the developer, Pulte/Del Webb, to make the appropriate corrections to bring the system into regulatory compliance, as well as into proper working order.

Rick was elected chairman of the committee and dedicated three years of effort in organizing the neighborhoods, using largely in-house expertise, and persuading the developer to do the right thing.

None of the tasks were easy, but failure to address the problems would have quickly expanded both the scope of the deficiency and potential costs of the remedy.

Stormwater management, especially in the Lowcountry, is vitally important for several reasons. First, runoff from development is the primary cause of pollution in our estuarine rivers. Secondly, runoff that doesn’t run off is called floodwater and flooding is dangerous and damaging.

The proper way to engineer stormwater runoff is using Best Management Practices (BMPs). One of the popular BMPs is asystem of lagoons or retention ponds. When ponds are not up to standard, however, they degrade our rivers and cannot protect our neighborhoods from flooding when we get extraordinary rainfall.

Rick and the Phase Five Committee documented the problem, enlisted DHEC to verify the lagoons were not up to the permitted standards and persuaded the developer to do the right thing. To its credit, when Pulte understood the gravity of the matter, it worked with the committee and paid to have the work done.

Pulte’s reputation was protected and the Sun City Community Association was spared the expense, around $500 per rooftop, of making the repairs.

Your representative was privileged to work with this fine group of folks in the capacity of facilitator and encouraging advisor. My 20 to 25 hours of phone calls and meetings over the course of the project pales in comparison to the literally hundreds of hours put in by Rick and members of the committee.

If you want to learn more about this inspiring story, go to www.myschh. com/lagoons and read the details. In addition, if you live in one of the Phase Five neighborhoods, go to the site and copy completion documents from the engineers and DHEC. They will be useful if you want to sell your property.

Also, Rick has also offered his phone number, 705-1919, if you have questions or concerns. I would suggest you call and simply say “thanks” for a job well done.

We also need to commend this paper for its handling of this story: no victim; no villain —just accurate and timely news. It’s an increasing rare commodity and I, for one, appreciate it.