Sunday, August 28, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

We got a fair number of calls and emails regarding last week’s column. I greatly appreciate the fact that the general tone of this back and forth was business-like and cordial, with a complete suspension of the few examples we have seen of rudeness and inappropriate commentary. I think the relentless heat this time of year was responsible for what we were hearing. As we approach the cooler fall weather, I predict we return to normal Bluffton courtesy and cordiality.

With the near constant talk of redistricting, there is something of a misunderstanding as to when the district lines will alter. While District 118 is going to include part of Jasper County and Hardeeville, that change is some time down the road. In the meantime, please refer your questions on Jasper issues to the Jasper County Delegation office where Rep. Curtis Brantley and Sen. Clementa Pinckney are available to deal with your problems and questions. While I have a keen interest in Jasper and Hardeeville issues, at this time that interest is of a concerned neighbor.

One of my recent “off season” concerns is all the publicity that surrounds the perception that SCDOT is not paying its bills. There is confusion as to whether our road and bridge builders are handling their resources properly. Part of this has to do with the scheduling of work and the different scheduling of receipt of revenues by SCDOT. This is a complex matter that lends itself to some misunderstanding by those that want to oversimplify the process. Anticipating this problem, I asked the financial side of SCDOT to forward me a weekly update of their fiscal situation, which is my right as a member of Ways and Means. Here is where we stand:

SCDOT cash balance on 21 August was $61 million. $49 million has subsequently been sent to the South Carolina Comptroller General’s office for processing as payments to the contractor’s you may have been reading about. For the month of August, SCDOT has made $125 million in contractor payments, vendor payments, and payroll. It is my understanding that, as of today, all unpaid vendor invoices are within the thirty-day working period and are scheduled for processing. On the revenue side, SCDOT is anticipating receipt of the state gas revenues from the Department of Revenue on September 6th or 7th, estimated at around $35 million. The SCDOT is expected to receive normal reimbursements from the Federal Highway Administration the first two weeks of September that will bring total September reimbursements, by my estimate, to around $70 million.

The cash balance for September, with the infusion of state and federal dollars will provide adequate resources to meet payroll, debt service, contractor and vendor payments to ensure the agency will have no outstanding bills over thirty working days, which is what we mandate in the state. More importantly, we do have adequate and accountable resources for the highway and bridge maintenance programs to go forward in a prudent and predictable fashion.

We will continue ahead with some projects, including $89 million in federally funded projects eligible for reimbursement. I believe we may hold off on about $24 million in state funded projects, which were not included in my above estimates. This, in my view, is simply a matter of controlling cash flow in recognition of today’s fiscal realities.

Monday, August 22, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

We got an amazing number of calls and emails commenting on last week’s column, primarily on the animal abuse and the “bottle bill” that will be coming up next session. As always, I appreciate the responses we get to topics presented in the column. Over the years, it has been a fertile field of ideas, many of which have found their way into legislation, and ultimately into law.
As much as I enjoy the conversation when you call, sometimes it is better if you will compose your thoughts into an email. That way, when we conduct hearings on the various matters under consideration, I can enter your correspondence into the official record, as well as read your words before the committee or subcommittee charged with reviewing the issue. Some of the emails we received on the bottle bill were absolutely masterful. They represented several different takes on how to encourage recycling of beverage bottles, as well as examples of unintended consequences of different laws in other states.
The idea that the state might impose a deposit on disposable beverage containers is not without controversy. Both sides of this issue were well represented in the calls and emails we received. As with most of the matters that come up for legislative treatment, there is no completely clean, good answer to the question. Mostly it is a matter of whether we should even consider a legislative solution, and if so, which is the one approach with the best cost/benefit ratio. Obviously, the more serious input we have, the more likely we will arrive at a good outcome. You are an integral part of the process and, in truth, you make me look pretty good sometimes. Thank you.
There is a side to this that I need to touch on, albeit reluctantly. While the overwhelming majority of constituent contacts we handle are serious, businesslike transactions, we are beginning to see more and more rude or insulting comments and suggestions. Having been a businessman for most of my life, I know that not everyone is a satisfied customer. If you have a complaint, I want to hear it. I need to hear it. However, if you are unkind to my staff, or use language that would make your mother cringe, perhaps you should calm down before making that call or composing that ugly email. If you think it’s a good idea to torture animals for our amusement, explain it to me calmly. If it is truly your right and privilege to throw your empty beer bottles on the side of the road, make a case for it. Maybe I’m missing something.
It’s no secret that we have an unemployment problem in our state. I work on it every day. I think about it every night. There are two local folks that not only think about it, they decided to make their own jobs. Bud and Shirley Mingledorff are a couple of friends of mine who are fun Bluffton people that want to take you fishing. If you don’t want to fish, they will ride you and your friends around in one of their nice boats while you enjoy our beautiful Lowcountry. If you want to take a bunch of folks over to Savannah for dinner on River Street, Mingledorff Charters might be just how you want to get there and back.
Bud and Shirley may not have the answer to all our economic woes, but they are certainly a part of the solution--and a creative, fun part at that.

Monday, August 15, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to begin my recap of this session’s high spots, as well as begin to give you an idea of what is likely to be in play as the legislature reconvenes after the first of the year. First, I’d like to share a piece of disturbing information I recently received, so maybe we can all be on the lookout for this kind of activity.
My good friend Leigh West Brown found a lab mix dog that had apparently been used in some sort of dog baiting or dog fighting activity. She shared the info with me, along with extremely disturbing photos. The cruelties that this poor animal had endured, presumably as part of some sort of sick entertainment, were simply horrifying. The law is very clear in this matter, made even more clear by recent updates to the statutes as we in the General Assembly were made aware of the extent of the problem.
If you come across animals that are mistreated for any reason, call law enforcement. If you come across any kind of dog fighting, chicken fighting, or baiting, please call law enforcement. This should not be something we tolerate in our community. Also, you might want to contact Leigh West Brown to see how you can help.
As a tourist area, we have more than our share of opportunities for outdoor recreation, sometimes while consuming various adult beverages. Done in a responsible manner, this can be good fun and a source of lasting memories. It also presents us with a potential disposal problem if folks are not careful. My friend, Senator Ray Cleary from Myrtle Beach has proposed a measure called the Alcoholic Beverage Container Recycling Bill, which passed the Senate but for various reasons was not taken up by the House. We will get a look at it in January.
While there are various ways we can encourage recycling, I’d really like to hear from any of you who might have experience in the ways that this can be handled. If you lived in a state with a deposit system, how did it work? Is this even something the state should have an opinion on? Let me hear from you.
One of the good things we managed to accomplish this last session was the continuation of the Land Conservation Bank. While we were unable to pledge any funds for actual purchases this time around, it is important that this tool was preserved for future use. This is especially true in our part of the world as both Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County have very successful and well-respected land preservation programs. In the past, both entities have partnered with the state to preserve lands in our neighborhoods, either by fee simple acquisition or purchase of development rights.
The Conservation Bank program was slated to sunset in 2013. However, House Bill 3083, written by my pal Mike Pitts, was passed with a comfortable majority to extend the life of the bank for an additional ten years.
Another forward-looking bill called the Commercial Center Revitalization Act, written by Rep. James Smith, was passed along with a Concurrent Resolution encouraging the Councils of Government (COGs) to draft ordinances to enable the retrofitting of shopping centers into dense, walkable, mixed-use town centers. As our commercial infrastructure ages, we need to have off-the-shelf solutions to repurpose and recycle these assets. This bill seeks to do just that.
More highlights to come as we trend into fall and the end of this hottest of summers.

Monday, August 8, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

The number of calls increased last week despite the heat and the end of the session. A number of the calls were about issues that I am interested in, but have no special knowledge, such as school district matters, the federal debt ceiling, and even some town issues. Like you, I have opinions on these things; and sometimes I may be able to point you in a more productive direction for information, but unless it is a state matter, my opinions are just that.

One of the issues that folks are interested in has to do with redistricting, which is a process that is related to the work of the Census Bureau. Every ten years, they count us, determine where we all live, and help decide how our political institutions should be realigned so that we all have a fairly equal say in the government. From the state’s perspective, we do two major jobs: we decide where the new General Assembly district lines should be so that each political sub-division has roughly the same number of folks. You may remember that my district, 118, increased to almost twice as many residents as it should have, so I have been given a reconfigured area that is more proportional population-wise with the surrounding areas. I still represent Old Town Bluffton and most of Sun City, but I also have Hardeeville and much of southern Jasper County.

Since our state has increased in population while other states have decreased, we were awarded an additional congressional district, the seventh. Historically, we had seven congressional districts until the 1930s when we lost population as other states, mostly in the industrial northeast, made substantial gains. Now the process has reversed and we have seven districts again.

It is the job of the General Assembly to draw the new district lines. This time around, there were two plans for the new district-- one had Beaufort as the center of the new constituency, and the other had Horry County/Myrtle Beach as its anchor. In my view, both plans had strengths and weaknesses, but the folks from the Grand Strand prevailed.

Our new congressional home is in the First Congressional District, with Tim Scott as our congressman. As Congressman Scott is a friend of mine, and much of our Coastal Caucus is located between North Charleston and here, I wasn’t too disappointed to lose the new designation. In fact, after reflection, it seems to me that we have come out of this reapportioning process with much more political and economic coherence than was previously the case. While we are grateful for the good work of Congressman Wilson and especially to his “go to” staffer Cris Steele, our new situation offers much positive potential.

In the past, reapportioning was usually a messy, insider-driven process. More often than not, the courts would intervene and outcomes were puzzling to the average voter. This time around, I believe we did a good job of running this difficult process with much more openness and stakeholder input. The credit for this goes, in large part, to my friend Jim Harrison (R-Richland Co.). Jim is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the group tasked with getting this thing done in a fair, business-like manner. I hope at least some of you attended the community input sessions that were organized across the state.

Finally, the fact that we have another congressman also means that we have another electoral vote in the presidential election. Sometimes, things just keep getting better.

Monday, August 1, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

The seemingly endless session is now officially at an end. It’s time for those of us in leadership to begin our extracurricular activities on your behalf. It has already been a busy off-season, with much more on the agenda.
With the new congressional district now centered in the Myrtle Beach/Horry County area, we are reunited with our coastal compatriots in a district extending from Charleston to Beaufort County. This will offer us a much greater congruency with our colleagues from the Coastal Caucus. In the last six or eight years, the resurgent Coastal Caucus, led mostly by your delegation, has become a potent force in the General Assembly. One of our premier agenda items is the preservation and continuing support for the Waddell Mariculture Center in Greater Bluffton. In this, we can expect congressional attention from my friend, Tim Scott, congressman from Charleston and no stranger to Beaufort County.
Another of my extracurricular activities that will also have a direct bearing on clean water issues is the ongoing work of the Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management, chaired by my neighbor and friend Wes Jones. Along with my friends Tom Peeples, former Mayor of Hilton Head Island, and Joe Riley, Mayor of Charleston, we continue meeting to hash out issues that become ever more pressing as an increasing number of folks move to our area and the threat of rising sea levels becomes more apparent. We are attempting to create good public policy that also respects the rights of private property owners. It’s a tall order but I am constantly impressed by the amount of experience and the degree of mental horsepower represented on this committee.
Whatever the outcome of the current debt ceiling negotiations in Washington, two things are becoming clearer relative to our situation in South Carolina. Firstly, by contrast, our rancorous and protracted state budget process looks like the work of a conclave of serene economic philosophers next to the federal trainwreck. Secondly, the level of uncertainty attendant to both public and private finances is elevated regardless of the outcome. If this spectacle results in even a partial default, the uncertainty is increased exponentially.
Whatever the level of uncertainty, the work we are doing on both the Caucus Tax Committee and the Tax Realignment Commission is given added urgency. After three years of double-digit percentage reductions to our state budget, we are potentially looking at dramatic federal changes, whether to the Medicaid 3 to 1 match, highway dollars, or even to things we cannot at this point anticipate. It’s an interesting time.
However much we are confronted with uncertainty over future finances, there is one thing that is beyond party and beyond policy. That is the return of local hero Jeff Fulghum. For the last three weeks, a good number of constituent calls and emails to my office have been about Jeff. How is he doing? What are his plans? Is there going to be a public event for him?
This Thursday at 7pm, after the Farmer’s Market, Jeff will be at Vineyard 55 across from Miss Babbie’s Store on Calhoun St. We need to make absolutely certain this young man understands the depth of this community’s gratitude for his service and his sacrifice for our country.