Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

Mary and I hope that everyone had as nice a Christmas as our family. Despite our recent loss, we pulled together and made what could have been a less than joyful affair into one of our best ever. The miracle of Christmas has always been about gratitude.

A brief and unscientific survey of merchants around Bluffton and Hilton Head would lead me to believe that most businesses in our area are experiencing their share of thankfulness. It seems that all the “shop local” sentiment so effectively promoted by the chambers of commerce did exactly what was intended. Most of the assessments I’m hearing are somewhere between “above average” to “over the moon.” Our merchants in the Promenade and around Old Town Bluffton report that between Thanksgiving and Christmas day, sales were very strong and continue briskly so far this week before the New Year celebration.

This is right in line with what we heard recently during the economic forecast session at the USC Darla Moore School of Business. According to our very own economist, USC’s Doug Woodward: “the state’s economy is looking good…South Carolina is in relatively good shape and there is growth in the US economy where we are in a position to do fairly well.” That may not sound like high praise, but for those of us who know Doug Woodward, it almost sounds as though our own dismal scientist is succumbing to a fit of “irrational exuberance.”

There are obviously a few spots in the economy still feeling sluggish after the Great Recession, such as home sales and new construction. However, the leading indicators for these areas are looking up and we have every reason to be optimistic that 2012 is going to be a turnaround year for real estate.

The surprise, of course, is that the manufacturing sector is leading the recovery with convincing gains across the board. Bridgestone, Continental Tire, Boeing and a host of smaller manufacturing players are seeing a serious recovery. While manufacturing only accounts for around 10 percent of our jobs, my friend Bobby Hitt, SC Secretary of Commerce, told me that we have a realistic shot at increasing that to 15 percent in the very near future. In fact, South Carolina is leading the region in manufacturing growth.

According to the latest projections from the Federal Reserve, South Carolina is one of two states likely to show growth in the next six months in excess of 4.5 percent. Combine that with the national business magazine naming us as the fourth best state in the nation in which to do business and you begin to see what all the buzz is about.

I mentioned a few columns ago that we had regained our AAA credit rating. While that is good news, what it means in practical, immediate terms is we can refinance a series of bonds saving the taxpayers a little over $24 million in borrowing costs. As a member of Ways and Means, such good news and such great economic projections help to salve the lingering sting many of us felt over the austerity budgets we have crafted these last several years. Sometimes it’s hard being the budgetary grownup saying we can’t afford this program or that new highway.

For me, one of the leading local economic indicators has turned out to be the live/work units we are putting together in Old Town Bluffton. The buzz has gone from several friends and interested locals, to calls from folks in the Upstate, and now there are several parties from Atlanta and Nashville requesting information and wanting to talk about taking the concept beyond Bluffton. We’ll see what happens.
In the meantime, please celebrate responsibly. Sheriff Tanner and Chief McAllister will have every available unit on the road this holiday. No excuses.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

With only a few days left before the Christmas holiday, I probably don’t need to remind you that there are a good many of our neighbors struggling to secure just the basics of living right now. Our friends at Bluffton Self-Help, Volunteers in Medicine, and Deep Well, to name just a few, are doing what they can. They could all use your help, especially right now.

What if I told you that there is a potentially productive strategic relationship for job creation (my favorite topic) and the non-profit sector? What might make it even more interesting is if you knew that very similar legislative initiatives were recently introduced into the state houses of both Massachusetts and South Carolina. What could the do-gooder liberals in Massachusetts and the rock-ribbed conservatives of South Carolina possibly have in common? And why are they both very excited about this forward-thinking job creation strategy?

The idea is called CHIRA, and the idea could potentially unlock trillions of currently idle dollars, and put them into the non-profit sector, building hospitals, schools, cultural institutions, and performing the good works that Americans have traditionally supported. Building equals jobs and jobs support families. The unlocked dollars would not only be available immediately for local projects, they would be directed by individuals in local situations with almost zero government input. Sounds pretty interesting, doesn’t it?

CHIRA is an acronym for Charitable Investment Recovery Act. It is a process whereby holders of Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) could loan a portion of their accounts to their favorite charity or non-profit. Concurrently, the 501(c)
(3) would purchase insurance to guarantee repayment, plus interest, of all dollars to the donor’s IRA. These dollars move immediately from Wall Street to Main Street. Instead of funding the Wall Street Casino, we could fund improvements right in our communities, guided by our local needs by local folks.

Right now, you can leave your IRA to a charity, but you won’t personally see any of the benefit because your estate will make the award. There are ways to donate assets before death, but there is a daunting level of complexity. CHIRA provides an alternative to this complexity while also making your wishes translate to good works while you are around to enjoy the moment. For details, go to www.chirausa.com and take a look for yourself.

Like all seemingly good ideas, this one needs the scrutiny provided by the committee system in the General Assembly. There may be some downside that is not immediately apparent. That is why we hold hearings and receive testimony from folks whose special knowledge in these matters is heard. Having said that, I have spoken to a number of legislative colleagues whose opinions I respect, and the overwhelming consensus right now is very positive for this initiative. As we look more closely at the particulars in committee, I will of course keep you informed.

Finally, I want to leave you with two suggestions: First, do your shopping locally with your friends and neighbors. Circulate your dollars around the community and you will be surprised at how many of them return home. Secondly, please make sure you attend all your holiday parties with a designated driver. One or two glasses of eggnog may impair your senses just enough for this Christmas to be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Give thanks for all our blessings and have a merry Christmas, confident that the coming year will bring us closer to peace and prosperity.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

As always, I appreciate all the comments, calls and emails on the previous columns we have produced. It is almost exactly a month until we reconvene the General Assembly. As we are refining our legislative agenda, your input is absolutely invaluable. Historically, the week after Thanksgiving is when your contribution to the agenda starts to get serious. While my conversations with you are the primary driver of the agenda, this year I am hearing much more from individuals and businesses from around the state and from other parts of the country. It’s an interesting phenomenon, but I represent you, and your voices are by far the most important to me.

We are still getting many responses from the Medicare/Medicaid columns of last month. In that vein, if you have a complex or multi-part Medicaid question, or a question about matters related to Health and Human Services (HHS), please, if possible, send it as an email or written letter. That way, I can research the matter and get back to you with the correct information, or I may just put you in touch with the person you need to talk with from the state. As much as I enjoy chatting, sometimes the complexity of these issues requires a more formal way of communicating. When we get you squared away, then you may want to come into the office and we’ll have that chat over a cup of coffee.

Last week, I rode up to Columbia for a meeting with the State Infrastructure Bank. It was my pleasure to be joined in the meeting by my good friend Weston Newton, Chairman of Beaufort County Council, along with his County Administrator Gary Kubic.

Hardeeville Mayor Bostick, and several key officials from Jasper County also joined us. This is an example of the regional cooperation that we have been talking about for a generation, which is now starting to happen routinely. It will also become more common and more important after the House districts are realigned in 2012, essentially creating a Beaufort/Jasper block in the legislature.

The subject of our meeting with the Infrastructure Bank had to do primarily with the status of the widening and enhancement of Highway 170, along with some of the feeder roads that will make our 170 efforts more effective. The outcome of the meeting was very positive and reflected the efforts of your representative over the last decade in creating the groundwork and rationale for the repatriation of your tax dollars back to the Lowcountry to address our local needs. It also reflects the success of Chairman Newton’s campaign to temporarily add a penny to our local sales tax to support crucial transportation projects. I will have more on this as it goes from agreements in principle to line items in the budget. Suffice to say we are no longer on the dark side of the moon, politically speaking.

There is good economic news from the big brains up at the Darla Moore School of Business at University of South Carolina. Over the last 18 months, our state has made big progress in the manufacturing segment of our economy. With Boeing, Bridgestone, Continental Tire, Amazon and a host of middle and smaller companies poised for expansion, they are conservatively projecting a 15% increase in manufacturing activity.

Also, a combination of our budgetary restraint and increased tax receipts has resulted in the restoration of our triple A credit rating, which will save us millions in borrowing costs over the next year.

Finally, my idea for live/work units in Old Town Bluffton sparked a ton of interest. That interest is somewhat driving the configuration of the project. If you want to become a part of the Bluffton economic phenomenon, call me at 757-5464.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

From the House

Bluffton Today

Today is the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that precipitated our entry into the Second World War. For those who were there, or whose loved ones were there, it was the equivalent of being at ground zero New York City for the calamitous events of 9/11/01. While that war is long over and the Japanese are now our fast friends and allies, the lessons of Pearl Harbor are not to be forgotten. Constant vigilance is truly the price of liberty.

On a happier note, many congratulations to our Bluffton Bobcats football team. Going to the state championship game is something that everyone in Bluffton can be proud of. The entire season was an example of how sport is meant to be. The young men who played the games, the classy coaching staff, and the enthusiastic but well-behaved fans all deserve credit for a stellar season. In the end, we fell just short of perfection, but in all the ways that truly matter, our community is uplifted by the example set during this outstanding season. Regardless of the final score, the Bluffton Bobcats, Bluffton High, and the Bluffton community are all winners.

Another great example of the entire community pulling together for the common benefit is the fantastic 2011 Bluffton Christmas Parade. With Grand Marshal (and former mayor) Hank Johnston leading the way, the parade stepped off right on time. To the delight of the estimated crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 attendees, the two hour long parade snaked through the heart of downtown Bluffton. The dignitaries were dignified, the Marine Band was excruciatingly precise, the Shriners were rowdy and loud, and all the singing and marching children were cute beyond the dreams of their proud parents.

As one of the “dignitaries” situated in the front of the parade, I was able to make it from the disbanding site at Frazier Park back to the Promenade for the last hour and a half of this splendid event. Even for those of us a little too old for Santa Claus, there was definitely Christmas magic in the air surrounding our amazing community parade.

There was organizational magic, thanks to Sandra, Julie, Tammy and all the tireless workers at Town of Bluffton. After all the years Town Clerk Sandra Lundsford has run these parades, she can do them in her sleep.

Special thanks go to Chief Dave McAllister and his crew for the excellent manner in which the traffic was handled. The notices of road closures and car removals along the parade route were done with timeliness and tact. All the policemen not actually in the parade were in place to make sure the excitement didn’t get out of hand. They were invisible but effective. As always, their performance reflected the highest levels of professionalism.

People really understand there is something special about Bluffton. Whenever I give a speech, many of the follow-up questions have to do with how can folks become a part of the community, especially the business community. They want to know what’s the possibility of doing a live/work situation in Old Town. Right now, the Promenade is sold out-- with a waiting list. However, I have an idea for a new project that just might answer the need for affordable live/work possibilities right at the center of Old Town Bluffton. Give me a call at 757-5464. We’ll sit down with a cup of coffee and talk it over. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Finally, in this season of holiday festivities, please use common sense and appoint a designated driver. Losing a loved one is always tragic, but even more painfully so during the holidays.