Monday, June 28, 2010

Electorate rejects ‘business as usual’

Bluffton Today

I’m going to postpone my analysis of the recent session for aweek or so. Instead, what I’d like to do is offer a few comments on the primary elections.

First off, its pretty clear that business-as-usual is not what South Carolinians want. In general terms, we can say that the election punished incumbents that were seen, correctly or incorrectly, as not being serious enough about reducing the size and scope of government. While I will personally miss some of the members not returning to the House, I am elated that the electorate is seemingly moving in my philosophical direction, and bringing some new people to the Republican Party.

One of the few potential bright spots in our dismal economic circumstance is that “hard times” makes reform much easier. It exposes the weaknesses in our process that seem to generate policies that leave us vulnerable to the cyclical nature of the overall economy, especially with our poorly diversified regional economy.

As I reported last week, we have cut the budget almost 30 percent in the last two years from $7 billion to $5 billion. While this is aconsiderable achievement, it does not excuse your representative or your Beaufort County delegation from our commitment to repatriate more of the dollars we currently send to Columbia back to our neighborhoods to fund our schools, fix our roads, or protect our rivers. In truth, as the budgetary pie gets smaller, the competition for our fair share becomes increasingly fierce. The next couple of years are going to be a serious test for the delegation. I am confident that we will rise to the challenge.

Much of my confidence is due to the fact that my friend Andy Patrick is the presumptive winner of the House District 123 seat, representing Hilton Head Island. Andy conducted a brilliant, positive, idea-driven campaign and will be a strong member of the delegation. Senator Davis, Representative Erickson and I have already introduced Andy to many of the key people in the General Assembly, particularly folks in the Coastal Caucus.

Our part of the Lowcountry sends buckets of money to Columbia, but much of the distribution of those dollars is based on population, of which we are relatively short. The only way we can compete is to have a coherent, disciplined delegation that is able to bring focused pressure on the challenges we face. It is better to have a big hammer pounding on the system rather than have several little hammers chipping around the edges. With our current lineup, I think we have every reason to be confident that we will make progress on our key issue, which is getting better return on our tax dollars.

As always, I am indebted to you, the residents and voters of Beaufort County and District 118 for your constant input into the political process. Even with the runoff this last week, we still managed to field more than 400 constituent contacts. That kind of robust communication, especially combined with the helpful new addition to the delegation, certainly bodes well for our chances in the next session. Then again, that’s why we call it the House of Representatives.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Budget reflects our core values

Bluffton Today

As promised, I want to make a few comments on the 2010-2011 budget. How we collect and spend the people’s money to do the people’s business is the most important criterion by which we in the General Assembly must be judged. Regardless of what you hear from any lawmaker, myself included, concerning political or economic philosophy, it is the budget that says what we truly believe. In a universe of potential expenditure, the budget speaks plainly of what we value.
In lean times, that which is valued least is the first to be jettisoned, while those things defined as “core functions” are preserved, even if they are diminished. In especially lean times, such as we are currently experiencing, even core functions are subject to evaluation. For example, in education, we always show a bias for the classroom teacher over the administrator, even though both are integral to the efficiency and integrity of education. In this, I believe we accurately reflect the priorities of those we represent.
Interestingly, there is a political movement gaining a foothold in our electoral process that demands, among other things, government that is smaller both in size and scope, that takes and uses fewer of our dollars while addressing those core functions realistically and effectively. I would suggest that at least in South Carolina, we in the General Assembly have more than anticipated those demands and produced truth-telling budgets to back it up.
Witness the fact that in the last two years, we have slashed spending from nearly $7 billion to less than $5 billion-- nearly a 30% decrease in the size of state government. There have been no general tax increases and this year there were no fee increases. Even with these draconian cuts, we have managed to fund what we believe are the core functions of government: education; law enforcement; and healthcare.
Even with this level of austerity, there are things that we think will create further cuts in future years. One of the more powerful cost cutting tools is requiring state agencies to begin with zero-based budgets next year. The potential results of this proviso are huge.
This is not to say that everyone was on board with these necessary budget cuts. In fact, if we total up all the proposed spending increases for this year alone, they come to an astounding $7 billion in spending increases. This would have returned school property taxes on homes, increased sales tax, as well as resulted in dramatic escalation of a variety of fees. Fortunately, the dominant political and economic philosophy in the House of Representatives and certainly within the Ways and Means Committee is some version of fiscal conservatism. While all fiscal conservatives don’t march in lockstep, we have a general agreement on what are indeed the core functions of government, and what is the bare minimum needed to keep the lights on. This year, I can say we tested those limits.
Next week, I will explain the dynamic that finally ended the current iteration of the Sembler matter. In weeks to come, I will also try to flesh out the implications of what passed this session and what we might be looking at next time around.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Editorial writers don’t get reality

Bluffton Today

Some of you may have noticed that after years of eating my lunch at every opportunity, the editorial board of “the other paper” seems to be warming to my legislative style. While they didn’t actually apologize for their often ill considered disappointment with me, their editorial of last Sunday was almost an admission that South Carolina politics is often about delaying or blocking the truly harmful, while engineering the opportunities to get some positive things done.

This is a fact that is simply the background radiation in Columbia. If they prefer to call it setting the legislative bar pretty low, or bemoan the fact that this simply might reflect the current community standard, so be it.

It also reflects the different worldviews that come with our respective jobs. An editorial writer can assume we live in a rational world and that good intentions will reap good results. They can conveniently overlook the fact that our state has historical and structural issues that seem to require we overcome a lot of foolishness before we even get to address the pressing issues of the day.

There is a facile tendency among some editorial writers to choose good guys and bad guys based on what would be if this were the best of all worlds. Consequently, when the clipping service comes around with a batch of editorials or political articles, especially during session, we’ll take a break and have a good laugh. Honestly, it’s often like the reality on the ground is being shoehorned into a framework of opinion that simply won’t fit.

My job, as I see it, is to represent the interests of my constituents as effectively as possible. We are a representative body with rules and protocols that shape how things are done. One member is as effective as his or her network of relationships allow. My effectiveness is based on my relationships and the ground upon which those relationships are built is jobs.

Everyone in the General Assembly knows what gets my attention: jobs. Constant readers of this column know my position on the primacy of meaningful employment. The pursuit of good jobs for District 118 and Beaufort County is also the filter that helps to make sense of the legislative noise.

This noise is the product of constant negotiation and shifting pools of alliances. The interests of the coastal areas are often in opposition to the inland counties. The Upstate has different priorities than the Lowcountry. The rich counties see things differently than the poorer counties. The Democratic caucus and the Republican caucus rarely move in concert. Overlay that with members who want to move up the food chain and need to stand out with an issue that they push, even if it is less important to the general welfare than other issues. I think you get the picture.

It is not the best of all worlds.

It is not particularly rational and certainly does not seem to be particularly coherent, at least to the uninitiated. It is a competitive mingling of all the economic, political and doctrinal elements of our state. As inefficient as it seems, we eventually sort out what is important, what we can agree on, what we can pay for, and who gets the credit. That is what becomes law.

Next week, commentary on the budget: what we did and didn’t do.