Monday, July 26, 2010

Off season a chance to cut future deals

Bluffton Today

The session is long over and we are, legislatively speaking, on vacation. This may be so for the rank and file, but for the leadership, including your representative, we are hard at it. Even though some of the details of this year’s budget are not yet finalized, we are already getting things rolling for next year.

To that end, Ihave met with the chairman of Ways and Means, as well as most of the other chairmen, trying to get good visibility on our financial priorities for the upcoming session.

This is also the time when I can make a little progress in building a foundation on which our delegation can support financial reforms that will reduce our donor status among the counties of our state. In fact, between sessions is the only time when we can operate without the day-to-day political pressure that has members interested mainly in appearing to protect the singular interests of their constituencies. During the off-season, there is more time to discuss the bigger picture and maybe strike a few bargains that will yield mutual benefits after the first of the year.

One of those areas of bigger picture consideration has to do with the revised and revived Sembler matter. The momentary defeat of the development incentives that the Jasper County leadership tried to put together to create jobs in the eastern portion of Hardeeville had the unfortunate effect of taking away the environmental, workforce and oversight features that might have made that project somewhat more palatable when it does eventually come on line. Some version of the Sembler project will be built, and it will be built and operated in a manner that satisfies the Jasper County standards, such as they are. Senator Pinckney and his crew are adamant they will create jobs for their folks one way or another.

I was a tad uncomfortable with all the ill-advised and unwarranted triumphalism that my friends at the Coastal Conservation League exhibited after the incentives measure was not passed in the closing hours of the last session. This whole notion of “we win, you lose” is particularly inappropriate when we are dealing with our next county over neighbors. After all, these are the folks that we will be working with for years to come on issues that are vital to both our counties, such as roads and port construction.

It is prudent to remember that all our rivers make up in Jasper County. All our roads pass through Jasper County before they reach us. We have regional concerns that will have to be tackled with mutual respect if we are to have any chance at success.

Obviously, I will continue to engage with my friends in the leadership of Jasper County. I will continue to push for enlightened, sustainable, and economically prudent environmental regulation. I will also continue to push for local and legal workers to build and staff any development in the area. I will also help our friends and colleagues understand that doing the right thing now is the productive thing for the long haul. What I will not do is demand that they do it our way or we will block their efforts. After all, our record in these matters is not without blemish.

Briefly, Many thanks to Marilyn Caperillian for her good work on the Beaufort County Election Commission. We made real progress on hard issues. Iknow that her replacement, Norma Stewart, will do an equally fine job.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Weather, hurricane season heating up

Bluffton Today

We have arrived at the hot part of summer in the Lowcountry. Maybe I have reached that age where one doesn’t seem to handle the heat as well as in the younger days. I don’t know. I do know that the river is calling me loud and clear these days and the appropriate response is to crank the boat and head for the sandbar with a cold watermelon and perhaps an adult beverage.

We were on the river last week and I happened to see my friend David Rosenblum and his wife Catherine, along with a boatload of children. David is home from Afghanistan for acouple of weeks and making the most of family time. If you see David or Catherine, please make certain you tell them how much we appreciate the sacrifices their family is making for all of us.

We are officially in hurricane season and I have been renewing all my contacts that will be vital if we find ourselves in a weather related emergency. To that end, I had a meeting last week with Congressman Joe Wilson and Butch Wallace about FEMA and what we might do to more closely link our planning with that of the feds. As we talked about the details of the Bluffton plan, Rep. Wilson assured me that he would be sure the federal government was ready and will do all they can.

There was also a great meeting with Tammy Malone and Frank Hodge from the town of Bluffton concerning possibly relocating town headquarters in the event of an emergency. They will not only want to make arrangements for their own people, but also those that might be here from FEMA and related agencies. Now is the time to get all the particulars ironed out so we aren’t making crucial decisions on the fly.

I have a meeting scheduled with Beaufort County Council Chairman Weston Newton and his emergency management director, William Wynn. Director Wynn is an old hand at this sort of thing but we still want to go through the exercise nonetheless.

In a somewhat related matter, I had along talk with Wanda Crotwell and Earl Hunter, the director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, on a different kind of emergency response. They assured me that in the very unlikely event that oil from the Gulf of Mexico well blowout makes its way around the Florida peninsula and into the Gulf Stream, they have a solid plan to bring immense resources to bear in protecting our fragile coastline.

Of necessity, such a plan is short on detail and long on flexibility, as we can’t know how this thing might occur until it occurs. Right now, the odds that the resources will be activated are vanishingly small, but the necessity for planning is very real and very urgent.

At the risk of sounding like your mama and not your state representative, I want to urge each of you to make a household plan—just in case. Know where you will go, perhaps where you will meet family members. Think about prescription medications that might be needed, as well as how you will arrange for your pets. The last minute is not the time to be getting this all together.

Last year I reminded you of these very same things. Next year, there is a pretty good chance that I will do it again. Part of living in the Lowcountry is being smart about hurricanes.

Monday, July 12, 2010

He says ... Department of Workforce improves jobless system

Bluffton Today

Today I want to complete my remarks, begun last week in this space, on the reform of the Employment Security Commission (ESC) and the creation of the Department of Workforce.

First, allow me to express my gratitude to my good friend, Professor Bob Dickson, over at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, for the opportunity to speak with his government class. They were energetic, attentive and inquisitive and listened politely to my prepared remarks before making me earn my lunch with a raft of great questions.

Since they were in government class, it shouldn’t have been too surprising that the questions were well formed and spoke to the pressing issues of the day, as well as a few that were on larger, more general topics. I think I did pretty well, but as usual, I learned more than I imparted.

It is particularly valuable for me to hear the concerns of those just entering the job market, especially as we have just been through one of the toughest economic downturns in recent memory. These folks don’t want the government to take care of them, but if they have unemployment insurance through the state, they have every right to expect that it be run efficiently and fairly if they have occasion to use that insurance. That is precisely why we in the General Assembly passed a general reform measure creating a new Department of Workforce to mandate efficiency and fairness for those seeking unemployment benefits, especially since they and their employers have paid for that coverage.

After years of uncertainty and confusion at the ESC, the new Department of Workforce provides clear solvency targets for the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund (UITF) used to provide the benefits paid to the unemployed. It establishes new requirements for the contributions that the state’s employers make to the fund. It is something of abalancing act to anticipate exactly the level of funding we will need to take care of our financial obligations in this area. We certainly don’t want to take dollars from employers that could be used to create more jobs or create growth. By the same token, we can’t find ourselves in the position of having made promises we can’t keep to those who may have lost jobs.

With this in mind, the legislation establishes requirements for the Department of Workforce to calculate an annual contribution rate for each qualified employer that is based on aranking system which divides the employers into 20 benefit ratio classes, and any county in which the UITF is not solid, the state will impose a surcharge on all employers to pay interest on the outstanding debt. The estimated amount of interest to be paid in the year will be divided by the estimated tax role for the calendar year. All of this will be amatter of public record.

There is also an incident monitoring system whereby we can get a better idea of who is being discharged and why. The new system design is more rational, keeps better records, and should provide better service. It should also inspire more confidence in the state’s ability to do a creditably job in an area that had much room for improvement.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Unemployment compensation under new microscope

Bluffton Today

Last Tuesday was the final, final day of session. The day was mostly about vetoes, but also the beginning of ascertaining the impact of what happened and what didn’t happen this session.

Some folks like to measure our productivity by the number of bills passed from January to June. I am not one of those folks. In fact, I hope to prefile legislation that will amend our process so that each potential law we consider does not have to be contained in two bills. This is part of my ongoing “red tape reduction” campaign.

One of the things demonstrated by our many furloughs this session is that we can get just as much work done in many fewer days if we are focused and disciplined. Any suggestions in this area would be greatly appreciated.

One of our legitimate accomplishments is the reform of the Employment Security Commission. This was a troubled agency for years but managed to drag itself along pretty much on inertia and ageneral disinclination toward change among many members of the General Assembly. We all heard the reports of problems with under and overpayment of unemployment compensation as well as failure to apply for federal dollars to supplement and extend the benefits to our unemployed workers. There were also alarming stories of people abusing the system by intentionally getting fired for misbehavior and still collecting unemployment benefits.

In this case it was deemed more desirable to abolish the agency and reconstitute its functions in a new format. The solution was H.3442, which I strongly supported. The new creation, signed into law 30 March 2010, is the Department of Workforce, a cabinet level agency with an array of employment related responsibilities. Among other things, this department assumes the role of administering the unemployment compensation program, as well as arbitrating certain kinds of disputes that arise under this regime. The legislation also creates the Work Force Initiative of the Economic Development and Research Committee to review and make recommendations regarding steps that should be taken to improve the economy of the state, the employment of South Carolinians and restores a greater amount of financial security to the citizens of the state.

The legislation also goes into some detail as to what sorts of misconduct leading to termination that might also make one ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Misconduct includes such activities as assault or battery on a fellow employee or customer, abuse of a patient or child under professional care, willful and reckless damage to employee property in excess of $50, theft of items valued in excess of $50, failure to comply with applicable state and federal drug and alcohol testing, the consumption of alcohol or being drunk on the job in violation of written work place policy and regulations, insubordination, or willful neglect of duty.

It should be clear that we must give each worker in our state some level of job security, but also be equally adamant that those seeking to abuse the system will not be rewarded for bad behavior. For me, it was pretty much a matter of common sense, but even common sense needs to be articulated in unambiguous language if we are to avoid endless and frivolous litigation.

Next week, more on ESC reform as well as campaign disclosure legislation signed by the governor.