Sunday, October 30, 2011

From the House

While most of us are paying very close attention to the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, it is worth noting that the part of government that will have the most profound effect on our day-to-day lives is local government. This is truly where the rubber meets the road. Much of this important work is done by you and your neighbors who volunteer time for work on boards and commissions associated with the county or municipalities, or in some cases, the state government. Ideally, there should be a waiting list for each of these opportunities to serve. This is rarely the case.

One of the functions of your Beaufort County Delegation is to appoint members to many of these crucial advisory bodies. Listed below are some of the appointments we would like to make if there are candidates to consider:

Beaufort County Transportation Committee (two vacancies)
Beaufort/Jasper Higher Education Committee (three commissioner’s terms expiring)
Beaufort/Jasper Water and Sewer Authority (one opening)
Coastal Empire Mental Healthcare Center Board of Directors (five terms set to expire with one immediate vacancy)
Lowcountry Tourism Commission (one vacancy)
South Island Public Service District (five terms expiring)

As the chairman of your delegation, I have set the next meeting for Monday, 7 November, at 10 a.m. in council chambers of the courthouse in Beaufort. If you have business before us, please contact Ashley at to get on the agenda. Today is the deadline, but this has been in the papers for the last two weeks or so. I cannot overstate the importance of having qualified, motivated people to serve on these boards and commissions. If you want to get involved, we will find a place for you.

Speaking of involvement, the Bluffton Town Council elections are coming up next Tuesday, 8 November. There are two seats at issue with four good people running. There are a host of very pressing matters facing us in Bluffton, not the least of which are the quality of the May River water, the current affordable housing effort, reopening and revising development agreements, and annexation policy. The candidates have been working the neighborhoods, but with over 50 square miles and nearly 15000 residents, it will be difficult for all of us to have a personal conversation with each candidate.

However, the League of Women Voters of the Hilton Head/ Bluffton Area has stepped up to conduct a candidate’s forum tonight at 7 p.m. at Bluffton Town Hall. I urge each of you to attend and hear for yourselves what positions the candidates put forth and how they articulate and defend those positions. The second most important thing a citizen must do is become an informed voter. From my conversations, it is clear that there are numerous and stark contrasts between and among the positions of the four people running for office. Hope to see you there.

The most important thing a potential voter must to do to fulfill his or her obligation of engaged citizenship is to vote. Please become familiar with the issues and then vote. It’s that simple. Unfortunately, there are parts of Bluffton, especially the newer neighborhoods, whose record of voter participation leaves room for improvement.

We all have excuses for not doing those things we know we should. We are all busy. I get it. Having said that, I want to make clear that the absolute foundation of our representative democracy is the vote. The vote is our voice: it is “We the People.” Silence in this context is simply failure.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

Thanks for all the calls and emails on last week’s column about my gleanings from the Conference on School Choice in California. The feedback was about equally divided between positive and negative, which is pretty much what I expected. On emotional issues like school choice, I mostly hear from either defenders of the status quo or folks that want to go to an entirely different system. I am somewhere in the middle. I want to preserve and enhance those elements of the current system that are working, while allowing for creativity in evaluating variations and alternatives to what we have now, especially in areas of chronic deficiency. Your opinion and analysis will, of course, help guide my thinking on this crucially important matter.

Most of this week was spent in Charleston at a pre-session budget conference. We are trying to get out in front of some of the issues likely to dominate the budget portion of the new session beginning the second Tuesday of 2012.

Right now, we are taking a hard look at the State Retirement System, especially given the blows to our retirement trust account issued by the Great Recession.

When we speak of the State Retirement System, most people think it just covers state employees, or those of us in the statehouse. In truth, this system covers not only those working for the state, but also those working under what are called the local subdivisions. These are county and municipal employees. Also covered are school system workers, university and tech school employees, even the good folks making lunches in school cafeterias. This is obviously a very large pool of workers who have legitimate claims on the system to which they have contributed.

Currently that system has an unfunded liability of around $19 billion. Thirty-one percent of this liability is direct state employees, twenty-six percent is to local subdivisions, and forty-three percent is to local school systems. There are some structural reasons for our present situation but a large part of it has to do with the health of our investments. In 2008, the funds lost 2.56 percent, followed in 2009 by a massive loss of nearly 20 percent. Fortunately, this was followed by two years of gains of around 14 and 18 percent respectively. Unfortunately, as investors know, the miracle of compound interest works strongly against you in a down market. For example, if your portfolio contains 100 units, and it declines by 20 percent, you then have 80 units. If, in the next year, you gain 20 percent, you are still 4 percent behind where you began the previous year. Multiple down years take a tremendous toll, which often takes many years of great returns to make whole. This is a part of our current situation. It is a big challenge, but we will meet it head-on and you will hear all the details from me as they emerge.

On a lighter note, the Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival was another wildly successful event. We all need to thank Brooks Willis, the Festival Committee Chairman, along with Board President Mary O’Neil, VP Dan Wood, Secretary Tammy Sauter, and Treasurer Barry Connor, as well as board members Tina Toomer, Nancy Schilling, and Dave Dickson. Fantastic job from all the volunteers, Bluffton Rotary and the patient residents of Old Town.

Also, next Saturday, 29 October, from 11 to 3, will be the First Birthday Paw-ty of the PAL adoption center in the River Walk Business Park in Okatie. Might be the perfect time to adopt a grateful shelter pet.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I was in California for, among several things, the Conference for School Choice. This was a convergence of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents whose focus was entirely on how to foster better educational outcomes for our children.

If our current educational system was doing the job, there would be no need for exploring newer ideas or processes. If our current system was more flexible, less one-size-fits-all, we wouldn’t be having this conversation around the country. As it is, we are spending ever increasing dollars on an effort that produces outcomes that suggest we are falling further and further behind our competitors in the global economy. This is a situation that is absolutely ripe for innovation.

In fact, one of the presenters at the conference spoke about how the late Steve Jobs, no slouch in the innovation field, was an active proponent of school choice. I urge you to Google an interview that Jobs gave to a newly minted “Wired” magazine in February of 1996. In the interview, Jobs reveals his enthusiastic support for a “full-on voucher system” as the economic driver of educational innovation.

While harnessing market forces to allow schools to compete with one another for the best teachers and students has an appeal to many, it also assumes that all people are profoundly interested in having their children receive the best education possible. Sadly, that is not always the case. Those children living in poverty or in dysfunctional family situations are at a disadvantage regardless of how their school is organized. Ninety percent of the speakers at the conference dealt in one way or another with how to get parents involved in their children’s education. It is a fact of life in our state that sometimes parents are too preoccupied with simple economic survival to properly attend to their children’s educational potential. We cannot simply discard these folks. Thus the challenge to optimize the system by providing different avenues to success tailored to the needs of students, and to parents across the economic spectrum.

In South Carolina, there is something of a chicken and egg situation between jobs and educational success. More and better jobs equal increasingly stable and functional families, which in turn leaves time and resources to pay attention to the successful education of the children in the family. Instead of taking a holistic look at what our culture needs to function optimally, we tend to look at the economy and education separately, without seeing the necessary connections. In my view, these seemingly separate challenges should be subsumed into a focus on what makes for successful families. Basic to all this is decent, well paying work for parents. Basic for decent, well paying jobs for the next generation is quality education. End of story.

Whether we will be able to meet those challenges is the test for this generation of public officials. As long as tax dollars in one form or another are used for education, the political process is how priorities are set and processes are funded. I say we commit to finding successful models, be they vouchers, education savings accounts, charter schools, semi-private schools or whatever, give them a real-life trial run with meaningful and honest metrics, and see what’s what.
In the meantime, I’m looking for another 600 jobs to add to those just announced for Jasper County. Families with sound economic underpinnings are much more likely to be participants in their children’s educational successes. The next Steve Jobs may be walking to Red Cedar Elementary this morning.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

We had an extraordinary number of calls last week on a variety of issues. Many of you wanted to comment on our job creation efforts in the local area. I appreciate those kind words. We are always active on the economic development front whether you hear about the specifics or not. We also got more calls on the new waste receptacles in the Promenade. It seems that each time we have some sort of event in the neighborhood, folks call in and let us know how much they like what we have done with the Calhoun Street Promenade, and how it’s always well kept and tidy. While, as developer, I do have a bit to do with keeping things nice, it is our great group of merchants and residents that do the heavy lifting in the spiffiness area.

One of the new tenants in the Promenade is Bluffton Today, our local newspaper. Kathy Nelson is the new editor and a fine addition to the excellent staff. Kathy is an interesting newspaperwoman and the consummate journalism professional. Bluffton Today is located in the first building on the right as you enter the Promenade from the south. I urge you to come by during business hours, meet the new editor and maybe take her to lunch and demonstrate that great Bluffton hospitality.

We have obviously had some job creation success with bringing in new companies from outside the area. However, it should be noted that the expansion of current businesses is starting to have a very positive impact on job growth. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the healthcare industry. Last week, we had a good meeting with the folks from Hilton Head Hospital and representatives from Candler St. Joseph Hospital, headquartered in Savannah, just across the river. The demographics of District 118, Greater Bluffton, and Beaufort County are such that the healthcare industry is bound to be a very large player in our local economy. In my view, it is important that my office act as something of a clearinghouse for accurate information that makes it easy for these businesses to locate here, or expand their current operations.

One of the features that businesses always want to know more about is our educational regime, from pre-kindergarten to baccalaureate level. They want to hear about not only a well-trained workforce, but also where the children of that workforce will go to school and what the offerings are. To be able to give a more comprehensive take on this topic, I am off to a school choice conference this week. The idea is to see how other communities have broken out of the one-size-fits-all mindset and improved educational outcomes by expanding the potential offerings on the menu. I’ll give you a report in the coming weeks.

Finally, we come to a good story of a young man who created his own job by doing what he is good at. Chris Shoemaker grew up on the May River and has become an expert waterman over the years. The son of Kathleen and Steven Shoemaker, Chris inherited great people skills and a love of the outdoors. Chris has opened a guide service to share his deep knowledge and understanding of the local estuarine environment. If you are new to the area, or just want to spend the day on our pristine river, give Chris a call. You won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

Finally, the cool weather has arrived after a somewhat brutal summer. Most of us welcome the change, if for no other reason than October is the beginning of oyster season. The local tradition of the charity oyster roast presents an opportunity to savor what are arguably the finest oysters in the world while helping out the schools or my buddies at Rotary in the good works they perform.

As many of you know, the oyster has long been a symbol that seems to bind us together as Blufftonians, and as custodians of the incredible May River estuary, from which these succulent treats are harvested. Back in the old days, oyster canneries were common in the Lowcountry and Bluffton had more than our share. During the Great Depression, oyster harvesting and processing were some of the very few jobs available.

While there are still huge areas open to harvesting, my friends Larry and Tina Toomer of the Bluffton Oyster Company are nonetheless deeply concerned over recent shellfish closures in and around the headwaters of the May River. Your legislator will continue to work closely with the Town of Bluffton, Beaufort County, and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to reverse the closures and add protections to the currently pristine areas. This is something you will hear much more about in the upcoming session, as well as for years to come. Unlike in the old days, only a small number of jobs are directly tied to oystering. However, our clean and green Lowcountry is a powerful driver of our visitor and retirement economy. If we become careless with our natural resources, we will lose much more than oysters.

One of the potential tools of great effect in keeping our natural beauty is the Blue Ribbon Coastal Futures Committee, which has continued to meet over the summer with some regularity. As noted in a previous column, this group is chaired by my neighbor and friend Wes Jones, who is a local lawyer and former head of the Coastal Council. Wes does a great job running the meetings and keeping our focus on the matter at hand. Whether you know it or not, when you call or email my office with advice or suggestions on more effective water quality or land management regulation, you are contributing to the work of this committee, as many of your comments are submitted into the record of proceedings.

Continuing in the environmental vein, I want to thank all those who called to comment on the new trash receptacles installed around the Calhoun Street Promenade. These units are set up so that one side is for regular trash and the other side is for recyclable materials, such as glass bottles or aluminum cans. All the merchants and residents of the Promenade already do a good job of recycling, but we felt it would help the cause if we made it convenient for our visitors and patrons to automatically do the right thing.

Finally, one bit of housekeeping to mention. Some time ago, we had some email and web site issues that caused us to miss a portion of our usual traffic. Hargray got the matter corrected expeditiously but we keep getting emails from a month ago. If you don’t hear from us almost immediately when you send email or make calls, please resend your traffic. Technology is great but sometimes it falls short. We absolutely need to hear from you. So, if in doubt, please resend.