Thursday, January 26, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

The second week of session was productive, in my view, less for what was done than what was said. With a little more income flowing into the state coffers, we are now having the conversations, sometimes debates, about what needs to happen. After three years of often excruciating agency cuts, do we try and return a modicum of functionality to the fiscal skeletons of Health and Human Services, Education, DHEC, or SCDOT? Or do we try to spark growth by reducing corporate and income taxes? There seem to be a few members representing these viewpoints, while most participants, including your representative, think that we can do a bit of both.

What we cannot do is fall into the trap of thinking that our sputtering recovery is going to support everyone’s pet projects while we cut taxes and revenue to the point where any economic dislocation of even a short duration has us scrambling to pay our bills and keep our promises. We have shown we can live through adversity, now let’s demonstrate that we can be smarter about a return to relative prosperity. For once, I am modestly optimistic that we have learned the lessons of fiscal austerity: to differentiate between our wants and what we actually need. As we go further into the budgeting process, we’ll see if my optimism is justified.

On to local matters with statewide implications. We have heard from quite a number of people on the proposed casino in Hardeeville. While this proposal is for a casino not technically in District 118, it will be become so next year after the redistricting takes place. Also, the proposed casino is literally next door to Sun City, and those residents certainly have an interest in this matter.

I am not opposed to gambling per se. If you are interested you might go to my web site and check out a couple of columns from March of 2009 where I dealt with the issue. My unofficial polling then revealed a general consensus in favor of well-regulated gambling, such as horse or dog racing. The margin was something like 8 to 1 in favor. My thinking has always been that this is a matter of Home Rule. What might be absolutely unacceptable to folks in Newberry, might be highly desirable for residents of Hardeeville or Sun City.

Also, what constitutes “well-regulated” is a crucial detail. My friend, Paula Harper Bethea has done a fantastic job of running the South Carolina Education Lottery, which contrasts vividly with our experience with video poker.

If you have thoughts on what “well-regulated gambling” means, or if you have had experience with gambling in areas where you may have lived, please call me, write me, or preferably email me. If you see good possibilities, say so. If you think there is no such thing as “well-regulated gambling” and gambling makes for unsavory business, say it.

District 118 is blessed with many smart people of different backgrounds and experience who are good enough to share their thoughts on these matters. I know I go to the well pretty often, but you never disappoint me.

As an example, I had a good email conversation last week with a fellow whose name you would recognize. He is a frequent “letter to the editor” contributor whose comments I follow and often admire. He is bright, articulate and passionate about things we both seek to make better. We just happen to represent different areas along the political spectrum. I can admire his letters and opinions but still disagree strongly, and usually do. While I am generally in the mainstream of local political thought and he is somewhat outside that mainstream, I need to hear from him. A good diversity of conviction is essential for civic progress. Let me hear from you!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

From The House

Bluffton Today

We reconvened the session last week at the statehouse with a lot of housekeeping and disposition of matters held over from the previous year. One of those matters was the veto of Senate Bill 211, the I-95 Corridor Authority Act. This was a measure that had been in the works for several years that finally was passed and vetoed by the governor. We adjourned before the House could vote on whether to sustain or override the veto.

One of the frequently asked questions that I get at speaking engagements is why some things take such a long time to go from the initial idea to legislation to statute. The I-95 Authority Act is the perfect example of why important legislation should take a long time. The process is intentionally cumbersome because it is immeasurably more difficult to repeal and unwind legislation with many moving parts than it is to revisit the idea several times before passage. Ask the real estate folks about ACT 388.

You may remember a number of years ago when PBS aired a documentary on the I-95 corridor through our state, the so-called “Corridor of Shame.” It was a wrenching expose of failing schools and dismal economies in the mostly rural counties bordering along I-95 from Jasper County to Williamsburg County. It somewhat followed the Abbeville School District v. State of South Carolina lawsuit then making its way through the courts. The legislative response was to initiate a needs assessment process with the intent of creating a sort of special purpose district to focus on the problems highlighted by the media and judicial attention. The final product of the process was the proposed creation of the I-95 Corridor Authority. The authority would be funded by state tax money, as well as federal and private grants. It would have an appointed board, which could hire folks and enter into contracts. It was essentially a quasi-government within our state government. It would be tasked with improving education and economic development within its area of operation. At the time, it seemed like a serious, reasonable approach to tackling historically intractable problems in focus areas of rural South Carolina.

While the intent of the authority was certainly laudable, many of us had reservations about the transparency of an unelected authority spending state dollars, which were also commingled with private and federal moneys. Those dollars would be dispersed as “grants” to various entities, some of which had better financial controls than others. The original legislation went through a number of iterations during several sessions, finally passing last year, only to culminate in a veto by the governor.

Your legislator and many others wrestled with this idea. We sought the advise of constituents and spoke with public officials in our state and in other states where similar ideas had been tried. My thinking finally crystallized around the notion that the authority was a poor solution to a very difficult and historic problem. The problems of the I-95 corridor are essentially similar to those in much of rural South Carolina, varying only by degree. To create an unaccountable governmental entity to address one area, with built-in political and oversight complexities, just didn’t seem like the proper way to go. What once seemed idealistic and innovative, in the clarity of hindsight, seemed hopelessly vulnerable to the vagaries of unintended consequences.

Consequently, on the first day of session, after a brief caucus, your delegation fanned out to work the floor in favor of sustaining the veto. By a vote of 76-47, we carried the day.

In summary, both education and economic development will be addressed in all of our state, not simply along a particular road. An authority might have seemed a good idea in 2009, but by 2012, its weaknesses were glaringly self-evident. In my view, we didn’t just dodge a bullet, it was a howitzer shell.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

I am immensely grateful for all the kind phone calls and emails concerning last week’s column. Not only were folks amazingly understanding of our family situation and how we chose to handle it, many were good enough to share similar stories and how they ultimately became “teaching moments” in their families. Mary and I are deeply touched and humbled by your kindness and empathy.

As some of my friends in Columbia are starting to realize, transparency is often difficult and sometimes even a little embarrassing. The “public” in “public official” often means that one’s expectation of personal privacy is different from that of a private citizen. You have chosen me as your representative in our state government and my consistency and integrity are part of what you hired me for. If there are times when I fall short of the mark or make a mistake, you will hear it from me. If I need to explain or apologize, it will happen immediately with no spin, no rationalizations, and no excuses.

Another popular topic in our constituent contacts last week had to do with the roads around Sun City, both the horrendous stretch along Highway 170 from the back gate to the Bluffton Parkway and Highway 278 from Sun City to I-95. One of the calls was from my good friend Eileen Brenner. Eileen wanted an explanation as to why the quality of the pavement in the relatively new portion of 278 from the front gate of Sun City to I-95 seemed to be deteriorating. I immediately called SCDOT to see if this was something on their radar. It was not then, but is now. When there is good information to pass along, you will be the second to know. Eileen will be the first.

In the ten years I have been your representative, the Bluffton area of Beaufort County has grown in population dramatically. Our transportation needs have grown along with our population. I am proud to say that our share of road construction has pretty much kept pace, with a few glaring exceptions, with our growing population as well as our increased popularity with visitors. In truth, much of the heavy lifting in this area is due to the diligence of my friend Weston Newton, Chairman of Beaufort County Council. While I have had good success in repatriating many of the state gas tax dollars leaving our county back to our county, Chairman Newton has made countless trips to Washington over the years to make our case before our federal delegation, usually successfully.

Unfortunately, Chairman Newton and I have been working against a road building and maintenance regime that has historically allocated scarce resources according to population rather than usage. Consequently, more densely populated upstate areas seemed to receive more attention than our overburdened roads, even though much of our traffic involved visitors supporting the tourist economy. It has taken longer than I would have liked, but we are now approaching parity with our upstate neighbors.

Today is the second day of the new session. While those of us in leadership have been hard at it during most of the summer and fall, the rank and file members have arrived and are settled in. The caucuses have met and organized, ready to take up the people’s business. For your Beaufort County Delegation, this is going to be a stellar session.

Join me in this space every Wednesday to hear not only what is happening in your House of Representatives, but also what it means for you, your family and your state.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

The colored lights are taken down and returned to their home in the attic for another eleven months. The Christmas tree has been reduced to mulch and placed around the azaleas. The holidays are behind us and the new year is looking bright and full of promise. Session begins in less than a week and your legislator and your delegation are ready to begin a truly productive several months on your behalf.

Last year, my office fielded and processed over 15,000 constituent contacts. That is almost a 20% increase over the previous year. Many of those emails, calls and letters were requests for information or help in navigating the unfortunately complex web of state government. A great number of your calls were in response to my requests for your opinions of the issues of the day. We are blessed with a tremendously efficient two-way communication in District 118. You tell me what you need or don’t need from your state government, and it is my duty and my pleasure to make your wishes the centerpiece of our legislative agenda. We’re confident that 2012 will continue as another example of how the good ideas of our people find voice in the General Assembly.

One of the issues that I have been particularly strong on over the years is one that I inherited from a political mentor, former Rep. JoAnne Gilham from Hilton Head. The culmination of Rep. Gilham’s service in the state house was a measure she originally sponsored that sought to close many of the loopholes in our DUI law. While JoAnne’s bill ultimately passed, it was seriously diluted in committee and was far from her goal. Subsequently, I, along with the Beaufort County delegation, have continued to work diligently to reform the DUI statute, consulting with Sheriff Tanner and Bluffton Chief McAllister. We have made good progress, but work remains to be done.

In this column, constant readers will recognize that I am always beating the drum for responsible alcohol consumption, designated drivers, and all those things that parents like Mary and I tend to go on about. Imagine our reaction when we got the call that a member of our family had been charged with DUI over the holidays. First was the relief that everyone was safe—then the gratitude to law enforcement whose astute professionalism detected and stopped the infraction before any of the “what if” situations could materialize. We all know families who have lost loved ones or whose loved ones became heartbreakingly diminished by such a momentary lapse of judgment. That family could have been us.

There are serious and appropriate consequences for driving under the influence, both financial and judicial. This is as it should be. We will, as a family, undergo these consequences with the seriousness appropriate to the matter. As onerous and complicated as the process might be, it is nothing compared to what it might have been. For that small blessing, we will always be grateful.

As for my legislative agenda, DUI reform remains a priority. In fact, it just climbed up the scale a place or two. As long as Sheriff Tanner and Chief McAllister tell me they don’t have sufficient tools to take impaired drivers off the road, I will be working on the law. As long as Solicitor Stone tells me he doesn’t have what he needs to make good DUI cases, I will be on it.

Before all this, my position was about good policy or delegation legacy—now it’s also personal. I ended the last column of 2011 on this topic with a two-word sentence. The first column of 2012 will end with the same words: No excuses.