Monday, March 28, 2011

Some equality returns to education funding

Bluffton Today

Traditionally, the first half of a legislative term is taken up with the budget. We are at that halfway point and the budget is complete. In the spirit of March Madness, we will structure this column as something of a “halftime report”.
The budget process, always competitive, was particularly fierce this year. After several down years and fairly drastic cuts, we were faced with delivering a spending plan without the extensive federal aid that somewhat softened the austerity in past years. Your representative and the Beaufort County delegation played a major role in the crafting of the document, and were successful in thwarting attempts to reinstitute parts of the older spending regime whereby we were disadvantaged, particularly in educational allocation. Not only did we increase overall education support, we placed Beaufort County in a position to get back more of what we send to Columbia for schools. To be clear, we are still a donor county, but our donor status is not nearly as egregious as in recent years. Even the casual observer couldn’t help but notice that your delegation has “raised its game”.
Even though we cut the overall balanced budget a staggering 4% after years of deep cuts, we managed to not only increase education, but we also protected core functions such as healthcare and law enforcement. We consolidated numerous agencies and realized savings by reducing overlaps and redundancies. We also moved the five divisions of the Budget and Control Board to a new Department of Administration.
One of the areas where I played a pivotal role, from a strategic subcommittee of Ways and Means, was in the renewed emphasis on job training and recruitment of businesses and industries to hire those trained workers. I will continue to make certain that we increase our efforts to link the required skills needed by business and industry with the training available in our vocational and community colleges.
In addition to strong budget work, we passed a resolution giving the voters the right to decide if the governor and the lieutenant governor should run on the same ticket, and whether the state superintendent of education should be appointed rather than elected. If approved by the senate, you will get the chance to decide these questions during the 2012 election.
Risking a failure of modesty, I want to say that the home team played a great first half. We put together a sound game plan and stuck with it. We played tenacious defense when required, and put up a lot of points. The second half will see a lot more individual effort as each member has projects to accomplish, but I am confident the teamwork and discipline we have developed will remain a dominant feature of our game.
Returning to local matters, I want to welcome Dr. Katherine Darling and the Darling Eye Center to Doctor’s Row in the Promenade and Old Town Bluffton. Dr. Darling has already become a member and contributor to the Old Town Merchant’s Society and looks to add greatly to the convenience and amenity of those living in the Old Town area. There is much to be said for having doctors within walking distance of home. In fact, if we walked to more of our appointments, fewer of those appointments would be with the doctor.

Monday, March 21, 2011

House completes budget on time

We finished the budget in record time. At least it was considerably faster than at any time in my legislative experience. I believe this was due mainly to the fact that we did such painstakingly detailed work in our committees and subcommittees, there was not that much to hash out in full debate.

We were able, as I related in previous columns, to fund a little more for schools and health and human services, as well as lessen the impact on many agencies by realigning and consolidating their functions to preserve critical staff and organizational memory.

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the most recent budget process came from Majority Leader Kenny Bingham in the final Ways and Means budget report: “This is the best budget we could put forward this year. We cut government but protected essential services by finding new efficiencies. We cut government jobs, and funded programs to create new jobs. This is a conservative budget we can be proud of.”
Two areas I’m sure to hear from you on are the arts and ETV. With regard to the arts, our area is a perfect example of a thriving arts community that seems to be flourishing with little or no help from the government. If I am mistaken, I want to hear from you. As for ETV, their mission will carry on with more of a market-based structure.

One of the pleasant surprises of this budget season is how quickly your delegation has come together into a cohesive and disciplined force on the floor of the house. There were a number of instances where legislative moves that would have disadvantaged our area were turned back as I challenged the member at the podium as Reps. Erickson and Patrick quickly rallied support among our friends. For example, there was a move by a group of smaller counties and municipalities to give themselves an unfair and disproportionate share of “Aid to Subdivisions.” That is money collected by the state and returned to counties, cities and towns according to census data. The folks from areas that have lost population sought to “soften the blow” by getting back much more than they were due. A quick and disciplined response from your delegation, in concert with our friends from Charleston, made short work of the measure.

Over the next few weeks, especially after I get more feedback from you, I’ll have more to say about the budget.

I want to congratulate Paulie’s Pizza and the entire Carrabba family for the tremendous award they received recently at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The hometown Bluffton team won in the Best Traditional Pizza category against the best pie makers in the country. I know these folks, and they are fine people with a great business and a customer-centered attitude. They are located in Berkeley Place, near the Sea Turtle Cinema. It’s now official: the best pizza in the country is made in Bluffton.

You know, I constantly beat the drum for economic development in our state, county and district. We have had some good success with larger companies like CareCore, but frequently we overlook the economic impact of smaller, often family owned businesses. Paulie’s is a great example of how you build a business. Old Town Bluffton and the Promenade are areas where small businesses, many of them sole proprietorships, are doing well, creating jobs, and raising our economic numbers as well as our quality of life. Sometimes, we just need to celebrate our successes.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Budget balancing will require cuts

Bluffton Today

Much has been reported in the last few weeks about budget deficits in the various states around the nation. We have seen some pretty outlandish political stunts committed all across the political spectrum. In South Carolina, by contrast, the last election provided us in the legislature with a set of marching orders that were clear and unambiguous. We were to close our deficits by reducing spending and reining in the size and scope of government. My colleagues and I on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee have done what was required. The budget is scheduled for debate Monday, March 14, on the floor of the House.

I urge you to watch on SCETV. There was a new USA Today Gallup poll released last week that found our state right in the mainstream of sentiment regarding how to deal with our financial situation. In the Southeast, most folks want state deficits eliminated, not with new taxes, but by reducing or eliminating government programs, especially those perceived as wasteful or not absolutely necessary. What we in the House have done is to prioritize spending, protect core government services, and cut the size of government.

Needless to say, I was surprised at a significant minority of the flurry of e-mails responding to last week’s column either questioning the numbers or the necessity of our proposed budget solutions. I must remind those folks that we are not the federal Congress with the power to print more dollars to sustain our credit card lifestyle. While we may, at the state level, create a small degree of budgetary elasticity by the tricks of accounting and manipulating the various trust funds, we are in the third year of 20 percent-plus budget reductions.

That elasticity was used up years ago. Our income is now completely driving our expenditure. You elected me to not only represent your wisdom and ideas in the statehouse, but also to be a responsible adult when it comes to saying “No” to that which we can no longer afford.

The overwhelming majority of you run your households and your businesses that way and now your state also runs that way. So be it. It should be noted that during all this cutting and realigning, we were able to increase the base student investment, the amount we give the local school districts, by 10.5 percent. We did this, in part, by consolidating many of the functions and agencies of state government. We cut waste from the Department of Education based on recommendations by Dr. Mick Zais, the new state superintendent. We combined the Department of Corrections with the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole. The Arts Commission and the State Museum were moved to Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

And Consumer Affairs is now where it should always have been, under the Secretary of State. Associated legislation ordering these consolidations is now with my friend Rep. Jim Harrison, chairman of House Judiciary Committee. Chairman Harrison and I consulted during the entire budget writing process, and will continue as we move it through the process. Many of you have called about the Heritage bill I submitted.

Please go to scgov.net, pull up my name and read it. Currently, the bill contains only info on the fiscal impact of the tournament. If the governor cannot fulfill her pledge to locate a sponsor for the Heritage, we must have a contingency plan. In this regard, my job is to educate my colleagues, and perhaps some of you, on the essential difference between a subsidy and an investment.