Monday, January 31, 2011

I-Traffic speed control serves valuable function

Bluffton Today

I had the honor of speaking before the Sun City Republican Club, along with my friend, Senator Tom Davis. I always relish the opportunity to speak at Sun City because it’s like homecoming for me.

Many of the folks have been friends and supporters since my first run for office almost a decade ago. They are the source of many of the good ideas that I have been able to turn into common sense regulation, as well as traffic infrastructure. Last week’s speaking engagement was so much fun it gave a new meaning to Republican “Party.”

In all seriousness, Tom and I gave our updates and spoke on what we hoped to accomplish during the current session. The questions, as always, were right on the mark. As usual, I came away with more than I was able to impart. We are so fortunate to have this community of engaged and informed older residents who are willing to actively participate in the political affairs of our region. Also, without the political clubs in Sun City, being a politician in the Lowcountry wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Thanks, friends.

One of the contentious issues to arise early in the session has to do with the I-Traffic regime sponsored and operated by the Town of Ridgeland. There has been a lot written about the situation, but most of the commentary has been incomplete, at best. My initial take on the matter was to oppose what I viewed as something of an automated speed trap. After visiting with the mayor of Ridgeland and having a tour of the site, I changed my mind. There is some merit in what they are doing. If nothing else, they are having a positive affect on the number of traffic accidents and fatalities in their area of operation.

Consequently, when my delegation colleague Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, put up legislation to legalize and support the I-Traffic Ridgeland regime, both your representative and Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head, were happy to co-sponsor. The legislation makes practical good sense and will get a fair hearing in the house.

It also has almost no chance of passage. There is a bill in the senate that is directly opposed to the Erickson bill that is unlikely to pass as well.

We will, however, have an opportunity to debate before the house, another issue where we in the Lowcountry are not allocated our fair share of state resources. In this case, we are chronically short of S.C. Highway Patrol coverage. This is important because the I-95 corridor in the southern part of the state is, and long has been, among the most dangerous in the country. Our highway patrol personnel are highly trained, effective law enforcement officers, but we just don’t have enough along our portion of I-95.

Once again, we in the Lowcountry might as well be on the dark side of the moon as far as our being allocated state resources, regardless of our well-documented needs. We contribute much more than our share and receive much less than we need. The I-Traffic Ridgeland situation is their creative attempt to make the road safer and to reduce their costs in dealing with the consequences.

Somewhere in our legislative debate of this matter, I think we can combine the best features of the I-Traffic technology with more SCHP involvement, to reduce the carnage and the dollar costs, and restore a modicum of parity with other regions of the state.

Obviously, this is a complex issue and I need to hear from more of you.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Budget solutions may lie in outside ideas

Bluffton Today

Last week we had weather issues and ceremonial obligations, not to mention a few organizational problems. This week we got down to the hard work of getting our arms around this budget.

The numbers we are looking at currently are discouraging, but most of the trends are positive. Revenue is down but is making a comeback. We also have to fill holes that last year’s budget took care of with onetime monies and federal stimulus dollars. That was particularly true with Health and Human Services and Education aspects of the spending plan.

Consequently, we continue to take testimony from agency heads, educational leaders, state hospital representatives, and just about everyone with an interest in the budget, including a great number of you.

In contrast to last year, when we basically just cut everything that could not be absolutely justified, this year’s more refined effort will lean more toward rearranging and changing our priorities within those areas where we have any discretion whatsoever.

As you know, in the off-season, your representative and many others try to attend legislative conferences where we can exchange ideas and strategies with lawmakers from other states. We are always on the lookout for ideas that will allow us to do what we need to do more efficiently and with less burden to the taxpayer. If they have a better way to deliver speech therapy services in Iowa, I want to use it here as well. If design/build roads are a success in Oregon, I want to know how they did it. This type of idea sharing will play a large role in our process this year.

Another way we get fresh ideas into our system is to bring new people into positions of influence in our state. Such is the case for the new nominee for the head of Health and Human Services, Tony Keck. Hailing from Louisiana, Tony is already deeply engaged in his departmental budget despite the fact he has yet to be confirmed by the legislature. After seeing Tony in action last Tuesday morning, I’m confident his confirmation is a safe bet.

One of the many impressive things about Mr. Keck is the fact that he didn’t ask for more money for his department, he asked for greater flexibility in allocating his resources. He also had a number of ideas that had been implemented successfully in Louisiana, which seemed a good fit for our circumstances. As a matter of fact, some of his cost-saving suggestions bear more than a passing similarity with aspects of what our hometown heroes, CareCore, are doing on a national level.

As much as I don’t like having to deal with the fallout from the Great Recession, the necessity to economize forces us to employ something like a natural selection of ideas to carry on our core functions. The spur of necessity requires that we be more open to new thinking and possibly to come out of this hard time as a more efficient and more humane state government. Having new, smart contributors like Tony Keck is also a big plus as well.

I want to apologize to all of you e-mailing me at my statehouse address whose communications were kicked back. Server problems once again. Please resend. We need to hear from you. This “natural selection” of ideas works best with a large pool of potentially great solutions.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bill drafted to reform Education Finance Act

Bluffton Today

First week back was shortened and modified by the inauguration of constitutional officers, as well as the weather. The speaker was prudent in delaying the start of proceedings until later in each day as there was a fair amount of snow and ice still on the ground, making getting around somewhat treacherous.

One feature of the first week which was not truncated was a mammoth six-hour Ways and Means Committee meeting. We heard testimony from a number of folks representing different departments and study groups, mostly trying to put the best face on grim news.

Since this is the first week of a new session that seems likely to be dominated by the necessity to fit the needs of the state into a dramatically smaller fiscal box, the Ways and Means Committee is starting early and will focus hard on making our downsizing as painless as possible.

One small bit of good news is that a sub-committee of Ways and Means is already drafting legislation to change the Education Finance Act (EFA). At first blush, this proposal would increase the number of dollars repatriated to Beaufort County something like $4 million to $7 million per year over what we
received for the last several years, which was zero dollars.

This is due to the flawed formulas in the EFA, about which you have heard me rail on any number of occasions. As the economy has deteriorated, the formulas have been skewed so that more counties have been cut out of significant school funding, which has made their lawmakers somewhat more sympathetic to our predicament in Beaufort County.

Unfortunately, the situation with the EFA also involves other issues having to do with certain counties having multiple school districts within their counties. For example, Spartanburg County has seven school districts, whereas we have a single district but serve roughly the same number of students.

I won’t say that this is gaming the system, but it does have that effect. If it was up to me, we would divide the number of school dollars by the number of public school students, assign each student a share, and have those funds follow the child. While that approach is somewhat simplistic, it may be a good starting point.

It is certainly preferable to the unmanageable complexity we have created with our current system. For the present, your delegation will strive for parity in funding, with an eye toward ultimately reforming the system as part of a more comprehensive overhaul of general taxation.

Two of the buzzwords we are hearing now are “transparency” and “efficiency.” In most of what we do, the latter is impossible without the former being in place. If we can’t get a good read on what the different universities are doing with their tax dollars, we certainly can’t make too much progress on the efficiency front.

Other initiatives we are likely to see in this session are a revamp of the S.C. Taxpayers Bill of Rights as well as a move toward legislative oversight of new regulations put forward by unelected officials of state agencies.

We may also be looking seriously at shortening the session, which is something I have heard from more than a few of you on the home front.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Legislature prepares to suit up

Bluffton Today

Tuesday, Jan. 11, is the constitutionally mandated opening day for the next session of the South Carolina General Assembly. Your Beaufort County delegation is ready to suit up and advance your legislative agenda. We have heard from you on any number of issues and are prepared to do what’s necessary to have an outstanding and productive session.

Much of the groundwork has been done so we can see real progress on the education funding front. While some of the local particulars are being sorted out in Rep. Shannon Erickson’s fact finding committee, we understand the broad outlines of what needs to happen for Beaufort County and other fast growing counties to receive a fair share of state education dollars.

One of the first matters we will tackle has to do with new beach setback lines and other regulations from the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). While I endorse the policy of retreating from the ocean as far as general development regulations are concerned, I also believe we need to recognize the concerns of property owners whose rights are threatened by portions of the new regulation. I would prefer to hash these matters out in a legislative context among all the parties in the spirit of goodwill, rather than leave it to the courts.

A number of the many calls and e-mails we got this week had to do with the beach renourishment check that was presented a few weeks ago by your representative and Rep. Andy Patrick to the leaders of the town of Hilton Head. After all, $1 million is a lot of money, especially as we are still in a recession-driven fiscal emergency. Even though those dollars are a direct benefit to our area, it was heartening to hear folks ask where the funding came from, how did we get it and is that the best use for the money at this time. Those are serious, legitimate questions that deserve an answer. Here’s the story:

A little over two years ago, in the process of doing research on another aspect of the budget, I found the dollars in a beach renourishment superfund that had been spent down to around $1.6 million. These reserve funds are customarily distributed on a rotating basis, and upon further research, I found we were long overdue to receive a share of the reserve. It seems a former house member had hidden the funds with an eye toward double dipping for his district. After completing my investigation, I met with officials from the town of Hilton Head, primarily former Mayor Tom Peeples and Town Manager Steve Riley to see if we could secure these dollars and how would it coordinate with their capital projects schedule. After more than two years of attentive and painstaking work and nearly 20 meetings with DHEC, the town and other interested parties, the check was presented.

When you read in the paper that a $1 million went to put sand on the beach at Hilton Head Island, you only got the culmination of a long and surprisingly complex story. As to whether it is the right place and time to invest those dollars on beach sand, I say absolutely it is. The role that tourism plays in our local economy cannot be overstated. If all my personal investments paid off as handsomely as placing sand on Hilton Head beaches, I would be playing bridge with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Committee will eye education funding

Bluffton Today

The number of constituent contacts moved up last week into the 300-plus area for the shortened week. If you called and I was a little slow getting back to you, I apologize. As I mentioned in the last column, we were short-handed and did the best we could.

Having said that, it was extremely gratifying to hear from all the Marine Corp supporters on the car tag issue. We are moving ahead with good support on that.

We are also moving ahead with the Golf Cart Bill. Much of the opposition we received on this measure last session was simply a matter of misinformation, which we are working hard to correct. Part of our effort is to enlist support from both law enforcement and the insurance industry, which appears to be falling into place.

This legislation has obvious value for folks out in Sun City, and especially for golf cart owners on remote barrier islands such as Daufuskie Island.

As more people discover that golf carts are an excellent way to get around Old Town Bluffton or Wilson Village at Palmetto Bluff, I believe we may have to take a more comprehensive look at the place these vehicles have in our communities. I see my friends Doug and Jean Corkern, usually with grandchildren in tow, easing their cart around old town fairly often. It’s a nice way to socialize and enjoy our great little town.

There is a delegation matter having to do with our education information task force that needs some clarification. This is a study group that I, as Beaufort County Delegation chairman, put into place at the request of Rep. Shannon Erickson (R-Beaufort).

I have asked Rep. Andy Patrick (RHilton Head) and Rep. Curtis Brantley (D-Jasper County) to serve on the task force with Rep. Erickson as chair. Their mandate is to place on the table all the features of the present system of funding Beaufort County public schools. This, of course, will involve extensive input from County Council, as well as both the school board and school district.

Ideally, we should prepare a joint meeting, with appropriate public comment, between all the stakeholders so that everything is out in the open and open for discussion. This effort is, first and foremost, about making sure that all the pertinent information is gathered in one place and that differences in the various processes of the stakeholding organizations don’t hinder proper communication.

This is a complex undertaking and we have no illusions about coming up with immediate, comprehensive answers to the questions of funding equity among the counties, or efficiency of outcomes for dollar spent. This is just about basic information.

For example, state education funding is not directed simply by the Education Finance Act, although the EFA formulas are a consideration. There are also requirements articulated under the Education Improvement Act, Education Accountability Act, the S.C. Education Lottery, and Act 388, as well as various federal mandates. This complexity has resulted from a well-intentioned but piecemeal approach to improving our public schools. In my view, we need a top to bottom review of not only taxation related to education but taxation in general. However, since education is close to half of what we do at the state, it’s certainly a good place to start. To that end, Chairman Erickson has indicated she plans to commence on Jan. 6.