Monday, June 27, 2011

From The House

Constituent service call numbers are soaring along with the temperature. We were back up last week in the 370 range, not too surprising considering we were finishing up the budget. The extended session continues as the summer rolls on. My duty is in Columbia, but the May River is calling me.

I mentioned last week that the Beaufort County delegation had pushed through the candidacy of a worthy Jasper County resident for the Family Court judgeship. We had a number of calls wanting to know why we were supporting a candidate from a neighboring county rather than “one of our own” for this prestigious position. A good question that deserves a serious, straightforward answer.

The first part of the answer has to do with the candidate, now the judge. She is Deborah Malphrus, from Ridgeland. Most of the delegation members knew Deborah as a very talented and successful lawyer with a thriving practice. She also has been on the board of the Palmetto Electric Coop for many years, serving as chairman for a number of those years. In fact, the more we got to know the prospective judge, the more convinced we became that she would bring great skill and presence to the bench. This is not to say that there were not other very qualified candidates; there were several who would have certainly been given positive consideration had they not had the misfortune to come up at the same time as Deborah Malphrus.

As far as being “one of our own”, Deborah graduated from USC Law School and has been a fixture of the Lowcountry legal scene for many years. Early on, she clerked for the late Circuit Judge Carol Conner, later to become Appeals Court Justice Connor. Her father was the legendary Ridgeland lawyer Joseph N. Malphrus. Her brother is recently retired Jasper County Probate Judge Joseph N. Malphrus Jr. The tradition of public service in her family is strong, especially considering that at least one of her three children is looking to begin law school in the very near future.

As to why her candidacy was not forwarded by the Jasper delegation, the answer is that their delegation is currently small and composed of Democrats. In my view, the interests of securing a judge of Deborah Malphrus’s quality and character overwhelmingly trumped any partisan considerations.

While our work with Judge Malphrus began before the outlines of the new house districts began to take shape, her election certainly gets our work on the new Beaufort/Jasper delegation off on the right foot. I have every confidence that Judge Malphrus’s time on the Family Court bench will be characterized by prudence, competence and appropriate compassion.

Bluffton is fortunate to have two members on the SC Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management. They are your representative and committee chairman Wes Jones. We met two weeks ago in Columbia at the DNR Board Room and discussed agenda items generally related to the DHEC policy of beachfront retreat. Our goal is to develop specific regulatory recommendations relating to the findings of the DHEC Shoreline Change Advisory Committee. Essentially, we are trying to find that middle ground between the public good and private property rights relating to areas where the water meets the land. This is a process, which will be ongoing, and I will report to you from time to time on our accomplishments as well as frustrations.

Monday, June 20, 2011

From the House

The number of phone calls and emails didn’t set any records this week, but it is amazing the level of interest this late in the process. We are in extended session, with a shortened week mostly dealing with cleanup and reapportionment. Still, we had 323 constituent contacts. The bulk of the calls were either on reapportionment or the Moss Creek Plantation dock system. Interestingly, many of the calls were from folks in Jasper County, now that the new district outlines are beginning to clarify.
As it now stands, District 118 is going to extend eastward to Burnt Church Road in Bluffton, including just about everything west of that, including Highway 46, Palmetto Bluff, the Buckwalter tract, Sun City, all the way to Hardeeville and over to I-95 and back to the Savannah River. This general designation will exclude Rose Hill Plantation and several other plantations on the Bluffton side of Highway 278.
The new district (120) will extend eastward from Burnt Church Road and pick up Myrtle Island, All Joy and the former Ulmer properties all the way north to Moss Creek Plantation. The district boundary will move westward along the north side of Highway 278, then north along Highway 170 to include Riverbend and Oldfield, extending all the way to Ridgeland.
The legislative implications of this new configuration are tremendous. With two seats bridging Beaufort and Jasper counties, we are bonded with our neighboring county in a manner that should give our corner of the Lowcountry a greatly increased profile not only in the legislature but in our economic development regimes as well. Regionalism has, up to this point, been something that everyone supports rhetorically but when it comes to practical cases, not so much. With the new configuration, regionalism is a legislative fact on the ground. Working in concert, our efforts regarding the port will be multiplied. Our chances of locating and sealing the deal with the next CareCore are greatly enhanced. Even the potential funding for USCB and TCL looks to benefit from a Beaufort/Jasper delegation working the budget.
In anticipation of our working partnership with our friends in Jasper County, next week I will tell you about how one of our important judgeships was captured by a worthy Jasper resident and the crucial role played in that process by your Beaufort County delegation. She’ll be an outstanding judge, and it’s a pretty good story to boot.
Finally, I want to remind everyone that school is out for the summer and our roads and sidewalks are filled with children on bikes, skateboards, scooters, and sometimes even golf carts and fourwheelers. Please be careful and attentive. The same goes for our rivers and creeks. A second of inattention while leaving or arriving at the sandbar can literally be life changing. More and more folks have found the May River and our sandbars. It is up to us locals to set a good example.
As always, over the summer, I will give you an overview of the session in terms of what passed and what it means. I will also give you an idea of what gets carried over and what we are likely to see next year. That is, of course, if we ever draw this session to a close.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

From the House

As Governor Haley and Senator McConnell were playing our their little drama last week, many of you were calling my office for some sort of explanation. In fact, 378 of you called, mostly to comment on the dust-up or to seek some understanding of what, to many, seemed like a schoolyard slap-fight.
In time, and with the intervention of the court, the matter was settled and the status quo was regained as all the combatants resumed a tense but amicable working relationship. My candid explanation of the events will have to wait for my autobiography.
From the standpoint of the House of Representatives, the matter was somewhat moot, as we passed all the long-needed reform measures back in March. Governor Haley wants the Senate to do likewise. To refresh your memory: H.3152 puts the Governor and the Lt. Governor on the same ticket—The House passed it 106-6 on March 3rd. H.3070 deals with the Superintendent of Education being appointed by the Governor. It passed the House 82-28 on March 3rd. H.3066 created the Department of Administration and was passed by the House also on March 3rd by a vote of 96-13. And the last of the Governor’s commonsense reforms, the combining of the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole with the Department of Corrections (H.3267) was passed by the House March 31st on a vote of 81-21.
Of these bills, the creation of the Department of Administration has the potential to rationalize and streamline many of the critical functions of state government. If it does nothing more than reform our antiquated procurement regime, it will have been a wise move. However, I will report from time to time how the potential is translating into actual benefit with regard to getting the most value for the taxpayer’s dollars.
Suffice to say that this is not the first time the House has done the hard work of investigating critical needs, refining the intent and the language of the bills in sub-committee and full committee, and producing good legislation, only to have the senate process derail, delay or deny the manifest will of the people. Admittedly, the senate process allows for one or two members to hold up the entire proceedings-- sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for embarrassingly trivial ones. Fortunately, our Senator Tom Davis is always a team player with regard to Beaufort County Delegation mission critical matters.
My hope is that the Senate will expeditiously address the reform agenda already passed by the House.
Finally, I want to refocus on the local Bluffton scene to let you know that my friend Aaron Dowell has opened the Bluffton Boat Center in Burnt Church Park near Monster Pizza. I have known Aaron for a lot of years and he is a good fellow and a great craftsman. I expect the Bluffton Boat Center to reflect both those features.
This piece of good news illuminates why my legislative agenda is always about jobs, environmental conservation, and the preservation of the Waddell Mariculature Center. Aaron created his own job and all the jobs of the folks that work for him or will work for him because people want to enjoy the cleanest water in the state, right here in Beaufort County. The Mariculture Center, with their cobia and redfish programs, as well as their research efforts, also make for great fishing in our area. Our modest efforts to keep our waters clean and our support of healthy fish populations not only give us great quality of life, they create good jobs and good business for smart entrepreneurs like Aaron Dowell.

Monday, June 6, 2011

From The House

We had almost 350 constituent contacts this last week, which was a little unexpected given the holidays. Many of these calls and emails were about the budget process, which is in the reconciliation phase with the Senate. A fair number, however, were concerning my traditional Memorial Day column — for which I’m grateful.

You may remember that we completed budget work on the House side and sent it on to the Senate in March. While this document was the product of much hard work, it was also based on revenue assumptions that have since been modified (for the better) and did not include some of the bills that have subsequently become law and need funding.

One of the ways we prepare for the ultimate conference committee negotiation with our Senate colleagues is to prepare amendments to our original budget that reflect the revenue changes, the new legislation and our House Ways and Means vision of how we should spend the people’s money. Amendment 1-A was offered by our chairman, Dan Cooper, in the Appropriations Bill, and it amended back to the version we passed in March.

The most significant change in the original budget was the addition of $210 million that has become available since March. We immediately replaced $97 million of nonrecurring funds with $105 million of recurring funds in the Education Finance Act (EFA). We always try to use recurring dollars whenever possible to avoid the scramble during the next funding cycle to find funds that may have been nonrecurring and not recurred, such as temporary federal grants or temporarily diverted trust account funds. My thinking on using one-time money for ongoing needs is well known, but I will elaborate in a future column.

The changes to the EFA funding had the beneficial effect of raising the anticipated per-student base cost to $1,876, which is an $88 improvement over the original budget.

We also directed $146 million into nonrecurring funds to begin to pay off the unemployment insurance loan to the federal government. This is, of course, the proper thing to do. However, it runs me hot that we borrow from the feds at a higher rate to take care of our unemployed workers than is charged the banks on the discount rate. It is federalism, but not a particularly cooperative version, in my view.

In addition, we clarified the language relating to the prohibition of lobbyists being paid with general fund dollars. The budget amendment also increases state contribution to libraries, as well as funds the Illegal Immigration Bill and the Voter ID Bill and continues implementation of the statewide accounting system. Additional funding also puts us on a trajectory to build the 5 percent General Reserve Fund mandated by the voters in November 2010. This should happen five years ahead of schedule.

This last feature was something that I worked hard on as we are increasing our “rainy day” fund at the end of a serious financial downturn. This gives me cause to think my colleagues in the House are beginning to think more concretely about the financial reforms I have been pushing for years. We’ll see.

Amendment 1-A is essentially our best, most prudent position in the upcoming conference committee negotiations with the Senate. It is a sound, forward-looking document that reflects well on the House of Representatives.