Monday, May 24, 2010

Cost of crime lab will pay dividends

Bluffton Today

This week I had an excellent talk with Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner. One of the items up for discussion was the opening of the new crime lab a couple of weeks ago.

Not only is this a state-of-the-art forensics and DNA facility, it was produced in an amazingly short time for a comparatively modest outlay of dollars.

The sheriff and I agree that the cost/benefit analysis for this law enforcement tool is such that the citizens of Beaufort County bought a ton of security and crime prevention for a pound of expenditure.

Sheriff Tanner and Solicitor Duffy Stone no longer have to wait in line for crucial forensic analysis work at the SLED lab in Columbia. We can expect their efficiency, which is already high, to take asignificant bump up when this lab comes on line in July.

The progression of this lab project from idea to operational unit is a great example of why Tanner has a statewide reputation as an elected official who gets things done. From eight years on the Judiciary Committee, I know for a fact that our sheriff is the standard against which most law enforcement officers are measured in South Carolina.

One of my first major legislative initiatives many years ago, which resulted in the Fender Bender Law, was at the urging of Sheriff Tanner. He is still the levelheaded voice of reason whenever the delegation considers law enforcement matters.

I had the pleasure of speaking to the Forum Club over at Sun City last week. What a great group. The dialogue and interaction with these folks is always a lot of fun for me. They pay attention to what’s going on and aren’t shy about contributing ideas on how things might be done better or more efficiently, or more cost effectively. I get more good, solid ideas from Sun City folks in one speaking engagement than most of my colleagues get from constituents in an entire year. Come to think of it, isn’t that what representative democracy is supposed to be about. Ideally, we are not just talking about the “consent of the governed” but also the active, enthusiastic participation of the governed.

Last week, I had agood talk with my pal Buck Limehouse, secretary of the state Department of Transportation. He will be coming for avisit in the very near future to help sort out some of our lingering transportation issues. One might reasonably ask why we are even talking about roads in view of the budget catastrophe we are currently experiencing. The answer is that many of our road projects are at least partially funded already, and what we need is coordination with SCDOT. At any rate, we will be discussing the entrance to St. Gregory the Great, medians going into Hilton Head, as well as some traffic calming and parking issues along S.C. 46 and S.C. 170.

My experience is that a site visit with the fellow in charge is worth about six months of e- mails and phone calls to those further down the food chain.

Finally, if you sent me an email last week and I didn’t get back to you right away, it’s because we had another glitch in the e-mail system in Columbia. I estimate we lost around 100 emails. My communication with you is aseriously big deal and any time it’s interrupted, I’m more than a little concerned. Please resend those e-mails and I will be right back to you.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cigarette tax a tough choice

Bluffton Today

This week you certainly got your money’s worth from this legislator. The session is winding down and things have to get finished. Those of us who know and understand the rules and how the process works are the folks that get things done.

One of the things we accomplished this week was the override of governor’s veto of the increase of the cigarette tax. At 57 cents apack, we are now pretty much at the regional average, but significantly under the national average. It was interesting that the debate on the floor was almost exactly as I anticipated a few weeks ago in one of my “inside baseball” civics lessons.

A 50-cent increase was what was doable, perhaps not optimal, but possible. The only arguments on the floor in favor of sustaining the veto were ideological or process related, with little reference to the merits of the debate.

There is little doubt that even amodest tax increase will deter asignificant number of kids from taking up smoking. No one argues that there are health costs related to smoking, much of which falls upon the state, especially if those health costs are generated by citizens of lesser means. The revenue from the tax will be put into an account until next year. When we get good metrics on the amounts and rate of flow, we will apply the dollars toward health care and Medicaid. There is some conversation that education and law enforcement will also see some of this revenue, but that currently seems unlikely.

It’s been almost 10 years since the effort to raise this tax got started. We mostly agreed that it needed to be done, but it just got waylaid by one thing or another each time we were close. Given the fact that this long-fought battle is won (at least for now), I should feel better about it than I do. The tax certainly meets the criteria for qualifying as a“user fee” in that costs associated with the use of tobacco products are being paid by those using the product. I get that. The truth is that I just don’t like the idea of raising taxes even when I know it’s the proper thing to do. My legislative responsibility tells me it should have been done years ago, but my gut resists.

Fortunately, we didn’t have much time to indulge in a lot of introspection, as there were deals to make and votes to whip. One was the Daufuskie and Sun City golf cart bill, which was almost down for the count. We revived that measure, got it passed in the House in record time and we are now looking for a Senate bill to bobtail. If we are successful with this bill, Mary and I might purchase that golf cart we’ve been thinking about.

Finally, the Jasper delegation made amove to bring forward a Sembler bill without environmental, workforce or oversight protections onto the floor of the House. It will be a race to see which bill finishes, and I really appreciate all I’ve been hearing from you on this. Sometimes, politics is not so much about making the best choices as it is about pursuing the least bad option. I will keep you posted on how this shakes out.

Bill Herbkersman ,R-Bluffton, represents District 118 in the South Carolina House of Representatives. He can be reached through his Website at www.herbkersman.com or by telephone at 757-7900

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lawmakers respect local legislation

Bluffton Today

It was great to see so many of you out for the Bluffton Village Festival. We had a nearly perfect day, and as of this writing, a perfect evening. The many thousands of shoppers and strollers are now the many hundreds of revelers at the Promenade enjoying the after party. Is it any wonder that Bluffton is booming?
More seriously, my column of last week was prescient in noting that the Jasper County leadership will not be deterred from creating employment in their region. As expected, Rep. Curtis Brantley has introduced a new Sembler bill, which strips out all the protections your representative worked so diligently to add to the older legislation. The new bill is local legislation, an important fact, and was motivated in part by the beating I have been taking in the local press and what that might imply for the current bill’s chances. It is unfortunate that provincial editorial boards sometimes fixate on the process rather than the probable outcomes of legislation. In this case, we may very well find ourselves with all the potential downside of the Sembler deal, with none of the protections that might have limited much of the damage.
I will, of course, continue to work with Rep. Brantley to amend his bill to include the aforementioned protections. They not only benefit us, they also protect the long-term interests of the citizens of Jasper County as well.
It is important to note that the new bill is a local bill, and as such is almost immune from contest. It is rare that one delegation will oppose the local legislation of another. It is something of a necessary evil in the General Assembly that we pass things of local or regional concern such as TIF Districts or various taxing entities as state law, even as the SC Constitution (Articles III and VIII) would seem to disallow this. In practice, what may be absolutely essential for Greenville might not be productive in the Lowcountry. What might be essential for our sea oats may not make sense for the Reedy River. For good or ill, artful wording of local legislation satisfies the letter of the constitution, even if it deflects the intent.
What this means is that if the recently amended Sembler bill, with my subcommittee’s protections, is defeated in conference, the new Brantley bill will most likely pass, minus the protections. If any member of our delegation causes the Brantley local bill to fail, our delegation will be subject to unspecific but eventual certain retaliation. Perhaps the next time we need a modest change to the Dept. of Commerce definition of “corporate headquarters” so that a company like CareCore will be able to relocate to Bluffton, we will be inexplicably blocked. Or if we finally get the state real estate organization to support a local option real estate transfer fee for high growth counties and we inexplicably don’t have the votes for our local bill, we will understand that custom in the legislature is taken very seriously.
It also means that I will probably continue to disappoint elements of the press on this issue. If that disappointment is the cost of aggressively protecting the interests of my constituents in this challenging situation, so be it.
Next week: more civics lessons.

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.