Monday, April 26, 2010

Moving on with a cigarette tax

Bluffton Today

After agreat relaxing week at the Heritage, it was back to the hard slog in Columbia. Before I get into the politics, allow me to comment on some of the nicer aspects of being your legislator, even during this time of brutal austerity.

One of the most pleasant parts of my job is hosting our visitors, and we had several this week. There was agreat group up from Sun City. As always, they were well informed, had good questions, and made certain I understood what were the important issues in their neighborhood. I enjoyed and appreciated the visit.

We also had anice visit from my friend Ella Wyman and her boyfriend, Patrick Parker, who was Jasper County’s “senator for a day.”

Ella is the beautiful daughter of long-time family friends, Ed and Angela Wyman. I met her the day she was born and have been more impressed with her every day. She is very smart and focused and we expect great things from her.

The cigarette tax is in its final negotiations and I predict we will ultimately get a levy of between 30 cents and 50 cents per pack. As Chief Whip of the Republican Caucus, I am in the discussions of how this thing is going to play out.

Today, I get to share with you some “inside baseball” stuff on the complex dynamic behind this measure.

We have been close to enacting this fair and necessary tax for some time. Up until now, there has always been some extraneous issue introduced that allowed the governor’s vetoes to be sustained. In truth, it’s been apretty cynical delaying of the inevitable. The voters want this, both houses of the legislature want this and now we have to be satisfied with half aloaf in order to get any kind of tax.

The discussion is not about passing the bill; it will pass. What we are discussing is how we override the governor’s veto. The calculus is this: if the tax is from 30 cents to 50 cents, we have the votes to override. From 50 cents to adollar a pack, the override votes are questionable. Thus, half aloaf.

Next year we will have adifferent governor with perhaps a keener appreciation of the necessity and the propriety of this tax. Then we complete the cigarette tax to a reasonable level where it will temporarily sustain our Medicaid obligation until the level of smoking is reduced by the tax.

Ideally, we will see a health benefit from that reduction, but I am under no illusion that the cigarette tax alone will eliminate the scourge of smoking from our state. At the least we should have this “user fee” to offset the cost of the effects of smoking.

This week I am bringing the Sembler matter before my Economic Development Subcommittee. There are three considerations driving what we will explore. The first is the environmental aspect of the project.

Regardless of what you may have read in other media outlets, that has always been my primary concern. The second consideration is local jobs. And the third is the creation of a commission or process by which the first two considerations are overseen and assured for the life of the project. It’s as simple as that.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bring charity raffles into the sunshine

Thanks to the many who called about last week’s column on NASA and the American “can do” spirit. I was surprised to learn there were so many NASA retirees in the area, as well as folks who routinely follow space launches. I do appreciate your kind words.

The Senate has run into some problems with the budget. It seems there may be some accounting miscommunication between different segments of the state government that will make the final budget even more austere. I would like to postpone my budget commentary until we have more visibility on that emerging situation.

Instead, there are a couple of things I want to discuss that have a very local application. The first has to do with golf carts as a form of everyday transportation. There is a bill introduced that would change some of the current limitations on how far from home one may venture in a golf cart, the so called “two-mile rule”. Simply stated, you can legally travel up to two miles from your home or place of business in your golf cart if it is road equipped, you have liability insurance, and you stay on secondary roads. Unfortunately, you can eat up those two miles in Sun City before you even get to the gate-- same over on Daufuskie Island.
What we have introduced is a measure that would, among other things, begin the mileage count at the end of the commons area, usually the property gate. This would open up much more of the shopping area around Sun City and allow Daufuskie Islanders to legally venture much further down the road before the long arm of the state tags you as a misdemeanor outlaw. With the push for cleaner transportation, it would seem that this would be one of those “no-brainers”. However, I anticipate we will run into opposition from areas of the state where the golf cart is not as appreciated as it is in the Lowcountry.

The second thing I want to report is some progress on the effort to bring charity raffles into the sunshine of 21st century legality. We will have a constitutional amendment or question that will reflect whether the people want to have permission to hold charity raffles or the legal ability to have a friendly poker game in their home for the entertainment of friends. This is a matter that my subcommittee has been working on for some time. We have heard from law enforcement, charitable organizations, and a fair number of people who just feel it’s silly to be unable to have a social poker game in their home because of a two hundred year old law. Again, another seeming “no-brainer”.

In conclusion, I just want to comment on the Heritage (it was great). I also want to comment on the blossoming of business in Old Town Bluffton. Even before the streetscape was complete, it seemed that visitors were flocking to the art venues and the great restaurants in the Calhoun Street, Promenade, and May River Road areas.

Now that spring is here, its almost like every day is a parade. It certainly appears that all the hard work and planning is coming to fruition.
Last Thursday, we had not only the very well attended Farmer’s Market, we had hundreds of patriotic Americans attending an old fashioned political camp meeting at the park in the Promenade. Whether you were in Old Town Bluffton for yellow crookneck squash or impassioned speeches, we all had a great time and we all got along just fine. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Shuttle blasts off in ‘can-do’ spirit

Bluffton Today

Since we are expecting the budget back from the Senate very soon, I will wait until next week to continue my analysis of that important document. It will also give some time for us in the House to review the Senate version and decide what we are likely to agree on and what may need negotiation.

I was with my extended family down in Florida for Easter break and we literally had a “blast.” In addition to my wife, Mary, and our children, there was my mom as well as assorted brothers and their families.

We also had the pleasure of having with us Mary’s parents, the Kinzer’s from Moss Creek.

We had such agreat time; we decided to stay over through Monday so as to witness the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. It was an early morning launch and unbelievably spectacular. We were on the beach about 70 miles north of Cape Canaveral. The dark morning was clear and we could easily observe the International Space Station for 15 minutes before liftoff. We saw the brilliant light of blastoff and then felt the tremendous sonic boom. This was followed by the sound of clapping all up and down the beach as spectators acknowledged one of the last night launches before the shuttle program is completed in the near future.

We were, of course, awed and amazed and not alittle proud at witnessing such an impressive display of American technological superiority. In addition, our family also includes one of the early NASA engineers, my father-in-law, John Kinzer. John was one of those “can do” fellows with the flat-top haircuts and the slide rules that made President Kennedy’s pledge to go to the moon a reality. John’s stories of how the space program overcame long odds to put the United States at the forefront of space exploration certainly made our appreciation of what we saw last Monday all the more profound.

In truth, the more I thought about it, the more proud and patriotic I felt. The era of the early space program, the 1960s and 1970s, was also the time when the building of the interstate highway system was under way. Americans were united in that “can-do” spirit and there was seemingly nothing we couldn’t accomplish.

There are those that say we can no longer summon the national will to meet the great challenges of our day. They say we are too divided and too short-sighted even to attempt what John Kinzer and his compatriots accomplished so fearlessly. I am not one of those people.

We, as Americans, have had some tough times recently, but our history is that after adversity we always come back tougher and better, stronger and more resilient. To me, it’s as clear and as brilliant as a night liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

This is Heritage week and we will see many of you at our showcase event. It is the time for Beaufort County to shine in front of an international audience. Our visitors are not only here to see some fantastic golf, they are here to see the gorgeous Lowcountry in all its springtime glory. A little patience and a lot of smiles will make certain we all have alovely week.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sembler bill continues with lawmaking process

Bluffton Today

The Sembler deal continues to meander through the legislative process. It is considerably different than when it emerged from the House. This is the way these things happen and the current iteration is not a surprise to this representative.

While it may appear to the casual observer of the Beaufort County delegation that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, in truth, that appearance is misleading.

The present form of the Sembler deal has Jasper County being allowed to tax itself to help the developer offset infrastructure costs. To most folks, this is a fair compromise, which has the added advantage of allowing the local municipality a stake in the outcome of the project. Instead of the state putting up the investment while the city of Hardeeville looks to be the primary beneficiary, the town now has some “skin” in the game.

While there is likely to be additional change to the final agreement, there are a few constants that will remain as far as I am concerned. One is the environmental component of the project. You may remember some time ago I asked to see the stormwater management plan being put together by the developer. Sembler was very forthcoming with the initial plan and I was able to run it by several experts, who, like me, were pleasantly surprised by the plan.

I was less impressed with our ability to compel the developer to execute the plan and follow through on the prescribed maintenance in the out years of the project. I knew, however, that the Senate would make changes to the overall deal and we would get another cut at this before the dirt started moving.

The second part of the matter on which I am focused is jobs — local jobs. If this project ever gets to the execution stage, I want to see local bulldozers and dump trucks out there doing the site prep. I want to see local carpenters and roofers and sheetrockers working in and on the buildings. This is before any of the local sales staff is hired or trained. By local, I mean businesses and residents from Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton counties.

As chairman of the Economic Development Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, any deal that emerges from the Senate will come before my panel for approval. Before any approval is given, there will be ironclad stipulations covering both environmental and workforce aspects of the project that will define what needs to happen until the expiration of the incentives.

In all probability, there will be an appointed board, representing all parties to the agreement, which will certify the stipulations are met before each incentive payment is made.

I want to say a few words on the Higher Education, Technology and Cultural Subcommittee portion of the budget. The total general fund base reduction to these folks is almost $86 million. The Commission on Higher Education was cut $1.6 million. Their task is to investigate the manner in which institutions are using LIFE and Palmetto Fellows scholarships and enhancements, which are stipends for selected science and math majors. The state library received a $1.5 million base reduction.

All told, reductions to higher education, technical education and related areas was around 21 percent. For good or ill, these cuts were wholly offset by federal funds, which are likely nonrecurring. We have made it clear to all institutions that these are non-recurring dollars and to plan accordingly.

Next week, more budget details. Enjoy this gorgeous Lowcountry spring.