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.