Monday, May 3, 2010

Sembler legislation could be much worse

Bluffton Today

As mentioned in last week’s column, the Sembler deal returned from the Senate and spent a day in the House Economic Development Subcommittee, which I chair, and emerged with exactly the three changes I promised.

The bill includes the environmental component that essentially mirrors the highly regarded Beaufort County Stormwater Management Ordinance. This feature will provide meaningful protection for the headwaters of the already impaired Okatie River regardless of what final configuration the Okatie Crossing project assumes. I am indebted to the Coastal Conservation League for their invaluable work on this part of the bill.

The second addition that came out of subcommittee is the local labor standards part of the deal. Some of the final language is being completed on this because as the bill transitioned in the Senate from a state incentive to local incentive format, the negotiations returned to the local entities: Hardeeville, Jasper County and the developer.

Unfortunately, if you read the article in one of our local news outlets, it was made to seem as though we rolled over and a lobbyist for Sembler wrote the agreement. Not remotely true. It was simply that the locals were back in charge.

The last change to the bill was the addition of an oversight committee to make certain that all agreed criteria are met before incentives are paid. This process will be ongoing for the life of the project, which is estimated at 30 years.

The evolution of this bill points to both strong and weak points in our legislative process.

The strength of our system is exemplified by the good work of Sen. Tom Davis in taking a House bill that had state tax incentives to support a local retail project and using the Senate process to modify the bill into a local option sales tax supporting local incentives for a local project. In my view, the three additional stipulations will make the bill, if passed in conference, a presentable piece of legislation — not great but not catastrophic.

The weakness of our system, of course, is made vivid by the fact that we essentially think we have to buy jobs for our citizens. Having said that, jobs are jobs, and they are necessary.

The one thing in this dynamic that did not change is the commitment of the Jasper County leadership to secure decent employment for their folks. Sen. Clementa Pinckney, Rep. Curtis Brantley and Rep. Kenneth Hodges, along with Mayor Bronco Bostick, are solid public servants and they are going to do what is necessary to create jobs. In fact, if the state sanctioned version of the Sembler bill is defeated, or sidetracked, there will be a local bill that will create a local option sales tax that will fund incentives for Sembler, or whomever will develop the Okatie Crossing site. Rep. Brantley was good enough to show me an outline of the bill.

If it comes to that, what will change? First of all, the environmental standards will revert to the Jasper County standards, such as they are. There will be no oversight committee, with no Beaufort County participation. We will witness and be affected by a project over which we have no effective control. Our aversion to a flawed process will have given us what we least desire.