Sunday, March 25, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Within hours of delivery, Bluffton Today’s article on those of us filing for election or reelection has had my phone ringing. Thanks to all those who shared their thoughts and kind words. I am truly humbled and grateful.

It also prompted me to think back on all the changes that have taken place since District 118 was moved to Bluffton in 2002. Politically speaking, we were on the dark side of the moon. We were sending a ton of dollars to Columbia and getting back a pound of nickels. Today, by contrast, your representative and our Beaufort County delegation are poised to join the top tier of leadership in the General Assembly. After redistricting is complete, we will add another seat, District 120, along with a good portion of neighboring Jasper County, giving us a collective voice commensurate with the economic contribution we make to the state.

Two of my most cherished successes have to do with safety issues involving the Sun City area, and are separated by almost eight years. The first was the installation of the traffic signal in front of the main gate to Sun City. Former Beaufort County Councilwoman Margaret Griffin and I worked every side of that issue before finally seeing that light slow down the racetrack that was then Highway 278 west of Highway 170. More recently, County Council Chairman Weston Newton and I finally prevailed in our efforts before the State Infrastructure Bank to secure the $24 million in funding to, among other things, make Highway 170 on the east side of Sun City into a modern, safe road. Sometimes you just have to keep at it.

Another early success that we continue to build upon had to do with water quality problems in our part of the county. We were able to build a durable working relationship between South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), the Town of Bluffton, Beaufort County, and Friends of the Rivers, to address the water quality issue with funding for monitoring and top scientific expertise. This is likely to be ongoing for some time.

My efforts at revitalizing the Coastal Caucus have paid big dividends, especially with recognizing the splendid work of Al Stokes and his crew at the Waddell Mariculture Center. They went from near extinction to a highly valued, line item funded feature of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

We are also poised for success in my multi-year effort to secure state education funds under the Education Finance Act (EFA). We are also looking at real state fiscal support for USCB and Technical College of the Lowcountry. Ways and Means Committee leadership does make a difference.

Somewhat related to that is this very recent development: we just signed the papers to enable a partnership between the state and the Town of Bluffton to build a dinghy dock at the Bluffton Oyster Factory Park. More on what this means later.

Finally, I want to thank Bluffton Today for this platform. My column has been instrumental in creating an ongoing conversation between this representative and the Greater Bluffton community. I routinely get hundreds of calls and emails commenting on the contents of each week’s column. As I have become a more experienced and influential legislator, your voice has grown stronger and more resonant in Columbia. Our partnership and the directness of our communication informs my politics and guides my efforts on behalf of District 118. I am clear on what you want because we have this amazing system, the heart of which is 600 words in the Bluffton Today every week, year after year.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

The budget plan that we have been crafting for weeks has assumed a final form that will please most observant taxpayers. It will also provide business owners tax relief in several ways, as well as support our state’s efforts to provide them more and better-trained workers. Our major port is assured a match for federal dredging funds when they become available. We also did the proper thing in replenishing our financial reserves ahead of schedule. And even with a total budget of around $6.3 billion, we also maintain our momentum in reducing the size of state government.

Here are some details:

Ways and Means Committee made certain that our various reserve funds were replenished by a nearly $400 million increase to these vital accounts. Recent painful experience showed the absolute necessity of healthy balances in these accounts to smooth out any potential downturn.

Recognizing that a huge fraction of the jobs in our state are related in one way or another to our ports, we placed $180 million in the Harbor Deepening Reserve Fund. This is the 60% match required for federal dollars to be used to keep the Port of Charleston competitive. It also is a marker of the seriousness with which we view the necessity of this work. Most states only commit to borrow the match when the federal government gets around to their appropriation. We put ours in the bank.

For my first several years as your representative, I was part of a majority that started to roll back taxes in South Carolina. More recently, as a member of Ways and Means Committee and subcommittee chairman, I have been able to help craft and guarantee a level of tax relief. This year, we cut your taxes by over $600 in mainly two ways. The first is by a 12% cut in the tax that businesses pay into unemployment support. This totals around $77 million, which is now available for our business community to reinvest. For those over 65, there is $100,000 tax relief on residential property. For business owners, there is $50,000 property tax relief for manufacturing, depreciation, and reimbursements. This property tax relief reflects around $549 million remaining in taxpayer’s pockets.

For this representative, education is a huge contributor to economic development and jobs. This budget increases the state support of K-12 public education by $152 million to be used in the classroom, not for administration. This raises the base student cost to a respectable $2,012 per student. In addition, another $24 million is slated for the ReadySC Program to support worker training in our technical colleges.

Currently, there are 50 state agencies funded at or below their present levels. This is because we begin each agency’s budget process at zero rather than from what they received the precious year. This zero-based budgeting is a feature I have pushed for my entire political career. As a businessman, the old budgeting process was an invitation to excess and waste. As a result, in the ten years of my service in the House, the average agency is operating on 40% fewer dollars than that benchmark year. This is a real-world example of what smaller, more efficient government is all about. We can do a good job on our core functions with fewer state employees if they are more efficient, better trained, and properly motivated.

In the coming weeks, I’ll have more budget highlights and maybe a few surprises.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

It has been a busy couple of weeks at the statehouse. We completed initial work on the budget, which is now in distribution, both physically and on the Internet. While amendments and commentary are being researched and refined, we are carrying on with the people’s business.

The House and the Senate overrode the governor’s veto of H.4627, which was the joint resolution unanimously passed by both the House and Senate, retroactively removing authority from the DHEC board to approve an application by the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Savannah River. This action, prompted by the governor for purposes of her own, overruled countless hours of DHEC staff work pursued to determine if such dredging should take place, and if so, what mitigation might be required. The process was lengthy, detailed, and made use of some of the top scientists in the state. Their work indicated that the dredging, if done as proposed, would have serious environmental consequences, especially on the South Carolina side of the river.

It took the governor and her recently appointed majority on the DHEC board a mere fifteen minutes to approve the Corps of Engineers dredging application, to universal approval—in Georgia. Amazingly enough, part of the proposed plan involving placing spoil from the dredging on the site of the long-awaited Jasper Port. As a member of the bi-state commission tasked with overseeing activity in the navigable waters shared by South Carolina and Georgia, I was disappointed, to say the least. At this point, it looks like the courts will sort it out.

We are also working on the restructuring issue. There is no doubt that our state government needs to be reconfigured so that it is not so dominated by the legislative branch. Ironically, one of the reasons our constitution created such a strong legislature was that we were, in 1895, enduring the aftermath of reconstruction and there was fear that a powerful executive might abuse those powers. Obviously, there is a cost in efficiency and flexibility for our antiquated system, but reform is hard when the executive seems to be acting recklessly, or at least imprudently. However, the recently passed Senate version needs work. It is simply too diluted to qualify as reform.

One of the areas where we are attempted real reform is with school choice. Last year, my school choice bill was defeated in a procedural move that didn’t allow a vote on the merits of the bill. This year, we are back with another bill that seeks to accomplish much of what was in the previous measure. Among other things, I believe that folks who either home-school or send their children to independent schools and pay out of pocket, deserve a tax deduction, if they are in certain tax brackets.

In my view, this is a matter of simple fairness. You apparently agree, as my mail on this topic has historically run about 10-to-1 in favor. Last week, we set a new record for constituent contacts with 528 emails, calls and notes. Most were on the dredging and restructuring, but of those on the school choice issue, the usual ratio was observed.

Constant readers of this column know that I prefer to be positive if at all possible, but sometimes I just have to be candid and let the chips fall where they may. Such is the case with this dredging thing. It is simply too important to be treated so casually.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

From The House

Bluffton Today

As the budget was being printed and laid on the desks, we took care of other business at hand. One of these matters has to do with controlling the amount and composition of trash coming into or out of the state. In my view, this is the type of issue better handled by those closest to the situation. Solid waste disposal is one of those things local governments seem to do pretty well. Why get the state involved with mandates and multiple criteria when the system works already. Having said that, if there are lapses in local control that have not been properly looked at, we may need to get more testimony. We will, consequently, be revisiting this bill next week. My preference is usually “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

When there are issues that have local implications, but perhaps there is variability in the circumstances from district to district, matters are somewhat more complex. Such is the case with a Wetlands bill that is currently under consideration. Although Horry County and Beaufort County are both coastal areas with many similarities, we are different enough that what might be appropriate for our northerly neighbor may not be the best way for us. As far as the Wetlands bill is concerned, many of the definitions don’t quite fit both circumstances, but the principles of coastal zone management require comprehensive legislation. Obviously, we will have to work this until we get it right. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes these things take years to enact. I will give you more details on this as it evolves.

An example of an effort being years in the making is this matter of government restructuring. This is something I have worked on for a very long time. The need is critical, but even the raw outlines are controversial. This is made more complex by day- to-day events that find some members of the legislative branch questioning the motives and sincerity of the executive branch. Nearly any version of reform will increase the prerogatives of the executive at the expense of the legislative. Efficiency is the goal, but the trust issue is a big obstacle. I believe, however, that there is enough common ground for progress to be made. In my view, the recent Senate-passed restructuring bill is too watered down. The House will get another crack in coming weeks, and I am optimistic we can get some additional efficiencies in our governmental system, but the changes will likely be incremental.

Another issue on which I have been getting calls is the Third Party Voter bill. This issue is fairly simple: how to protect the integrity of our electoral system. There are, however, so many groups currently involved in voter registration, coming from such a wide spectrum of interests; the complexity of regulating the process is daunting. We will have to take another look. Legislating common sense is hard, perhaps impossible.

In a more social vein, we had lots of visitors up to see us last week. We had a contingent from the Greater Island Committee, as well as a good group from Sun City. Unfortunately, several of our delegation members were not available for the Hilton Head group, but I was able to visit with our Sun City friends and certainly enjoyed our tour.