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.