Monday, February 27, 2012

From The House

Bluffton Today

We hit the budget a good lick last week, beginning early on Monday morning and continuing well into Thursday evening. In all modesty, this budget will reflect well on the needs of District 118 and Beaufort County. We are still one of the “donor” districts, but much closer to parity than at any time in my decade as your representative in Columbia.

In last week’s column, I detailed our success at the Infrastructure Bank, securing nearly $25 million for the Highway 170 project. The relentlessness of County Council Chairman Weston Newton, combined with a united, active delegation produced a big win for the home team. I also believe we will see additional state support for our productive post-secondary educational treasures, USCB and TCL, as well as for the Rape Crisis Center and the May River water quality effort. There are also likely to be additional dollars for the Heyward House in Old Town Bluffton.

Next week, we are going to take up funding for the Waddell Mariculture Center in Greater Bluffton. For too many years, my friend Al Stokes, Waddell Center manager, held that place together with spit and chewing gum while doing world-class research into how we can make out local waters produce more and higher quality fish, shrimp, and crabs. In the last few years, we have been able to make our case that the Mariculture Center was a tremendous investment, returning huge benefit for each dollar spent. Consequently, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hearings before the different committees and subcommittees that oversee this installation are more about “what do you need to better accomplish your mission?” and less about “how can we shut you down?” Kudos to Al Stokes and crew, Friends of Waddell, Hilton Head Sportfishing Club President Dave Harter and many others for supporting this excellent DNR research facility while we in Columbia got up to speed on this unique asset.

The budget process is extremely detailed and somewhat tedious, because we look at literally every penny of tax money, your tax money, that comes to the state. We make certain that what we have is divided fairly and buys the maximum value in goods and services that are required to serve the need of the citizens. When I speak of bringing more of those dollars back to District 118 and Beaufort County, this is not pork, it is what is required to educate our children, take care of our most vulnerable folks, provide a certain level of transportation infrastructure, and do all the other things we have agreed the state needs to do. What I have tried to do since my first day in the legislature is reduce your overall state taxes, which we have done, and increase the percentage of our tax dollars returning to Beaufort County. We are a relatively wealthy area, so we will likely remain a donor county. Parity is a worthy goal even if we are unlikely to see it.

Finally, after talking about what we are doing for you, let me say a few words about what you can do to help make our system function properly. Volunteer. If you have few hours a week, or a month, call the office and let us know what your interests are. We will help find you a board or commission that needs you. That goes for the county or the municipalities as well. They need you. You help keep the system grounded. A great example is the recently retired Elections Commissioner, Norma Stewart. She did great work in an area that needed improvement. You too, can make a difference.

Next week, more budget. Also, a little inside baseball about how District 118 is reducing its donor status.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Even though we were technically on furlough from the House last week, there was a lot happening both on the legislative and home fronts.

We were certainly happy to host a fine group of student leaders from M.C. Riley Elementary School week before last. We were able to offer a guided tour as well as a DVD on the history and architecture of our statehouse. It was particularly impressive that these members of the Student Council had conducted fundraisers to underwrite their field trip. That sort of self-reliance is a value that enhances the traditional academic role played by our fine schools.

Also in the education area, we had USC Day, with a fine complement of student leaders from USCB. They were in Columbia with my friends Chancellor Jane Upshaw and USCB Development Director Lynn McGee. They were kind enough to present your representative with an honorary Alumnus Award for my efforts on behalf of USCB. In truth, it has been a pleasure working with USCB, with Dr. Upshaw and local USC board members Wes Jones, of Bluffton, and Miles Loadholt, a part-time Bluffton resident.

I have seen first-hand how having a four-year baccalaureate-granting university in our community has been life changing for so many of our residents who might not have had the opportunity to achieve the dream of a college degree without our hometown university. The possibilities are currently being expanded as the university roles out more online and other distance learning features to better serve our people and our state.

We also got another heart-warming award last week. This time it was from Chief Executive Officer Roland Gardner and the board of the Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services. These good folks are responsible for providing excellent, accessible and affordable health care across a wide range of need to a previously underserved population in the Lowcountry. I appreciate their recognition, but it is we who owe them an ongoing debt of gratitude for their great work.

Finally, there is good news for those of us traveling the Highway 170 corridor beside Sun City. It was announced that almost $25 million will go toward improving this busy highway. I had mentioned this in previous columns but didn’t want to announce until all the details were worked out and we were certain of the outcome. While your representative has worked on this for a number of years, the lions share of the credit goes to my good friend and Chairman of Beaufort County Council, Weston Newton.

Chairman Newton has been relentless in pursuing transportation dollars for our area for many years, including numerous trips to Washington to involve our federal delegation when appropriate. Most recently, Chairman Newton and I, along with Senator Chip Campsen (R-Isle of Palms) met with the board of the State Infrastructure Bank last December to renew our 2008 application from Beaufort County for dollars to address the Highway 170 situation. A part of our case involved your many letters and emails requesting relief from the dangerous condition of this highway.

While these funds will expand and improve the safety of 170, it also gives the county some flexibility with the completion of the Bluffton Parkway. This is also great news for our penny sales tax for roads, which has fallen somewhat short due to the Great Recession. It is my hope that we can now complete the sales tax project list without an extension of this penny sales tax. Our self-reliance, much like that of the M.C. Riley Student Council, has proven beneficial in more ways than just the obvious.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was a busy week both here in Bluffton and at the statehouse in Columbia. The House is taking up a measure that will finally address some of the issues of governmental clarity and transparency, not only in state government, but local governments as well. We have heard quite a lot about this topic from the governor, whose record has, unfortunately, been such that we on the legislative side are dealing with a certain level of skepticism as we put together our reforms, in the form of H.3225. If we can get this right, our Freedom of Information Act will become less about gamesmanship and more about the people’s right to know what government is up to.

I want to see real teeth in this measure. If the crowds of rapt spectators following these hearing are any indication, the public thinks that what often passes for governance could use some cleansing sunshine. You shouldn’t need to get an opinion from the Attorney General to go into executive session at town council. By the same token, using the executive session to conceal mistakes or budgetary shenanigans is far too common. A good, clear law will help.

One of the areas in Columbia that might benefit from a little sunshine is the state Senate, where the golf cart bill has been bottled up, despite the fact that there is little or no opposition to the bill. Senator Davis and I are trying to get to the bottom of this. I hope to have an update for you soon.

In my last column, I promised to run down some of the new features to the Calhoun Street Promenade. As you may have read, there are two new restaurants under construction. They will be interesting buildings with something of an art gallery theme, which is appropriate to Old Town Bluffton. As with all the existing Promenade structures, the local public has had a great deal of input into the design and placement of these new buildings, located just to the east of Capt. Woody’s. My hat is off to the Town of Bluffton planning staff and the Historic Preservation Commission for the wealth of good work done to help evolve these projects. I also appreciate all the folks who came by the office to look at the plans and offer suggestions. Such community involvement makes for the absolute best neighborhood dynamic. Thank you.

Finally, I’ll relate my first experience as a college professor in USCB’s OLLI Program. The acronym stands for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and it’s a great way for us older folks to stay sharp while we learn interesting information about the Lowcountry, as well as something of the great ideas that we have wrestled with for centuries.

My professorial debut was actually a ninety-minute discussion of redistricting, and why it’s important. In truth, constant readers of this column have already been pretty well briefed on this matter, but I was game nonetheless. There was a good crowd, including many of my old friends. Eileen Brenner, who most folks know as the spark plug of the Sun City AARP, was there with her great smile. Another smiling face belonged to pathways guru Karen Heitman, who may or may not have ridden over on her bike.

Well, I launched into the material, covered it sufficiently in about twenty minutes, and then was the beneficiary of a great deal of conversational generosity from my audience. They came up with interesting, related topics and all contributed to a fun class. What I lack as a professor was more than made up for by having smart and superbly generous friends.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week was a lot of hurry up and wait as we plow through the preliminaries before the rough and tumble of budget talks. My previous report on Health and Human Services and Director Tony Keck’s presentation before my Ways and Means subcommittee was an example of how state and national trends are playing out in South Carolina. The projected rise in overall health care costs nationwide is driving a serious effort to employ technology to keep those costs from overwhelming budgets from households all the way to Medicare and Medicaid.

Beaufort County is at the forefront of these cost saving efforts. There is CareCore, of course. It is a state-of-the-art medical service allocation system. There is also an outfit on Hilton Head Island that uses advanced communications technology and focuses on a few common illnesses, such as ear infections. They save countless dollars in emergency room visits by having a qualified nurse taking care of problems over the phone. There are several similar protocols in service locally that are having great success by helping to increase utilization of expensive medical equipment by scheduling patients more efficiently. Wait times go down and utilization goes up.

Also, the combination of a desirable quality of life for service providers and an older, relatively affluent population results in more doctors wanting to relocate here. For example, a good friend of ours, Dr. David Rowe, recently moved down from Tennessee to manage the Pain Center at the Okatie Outpatient Center. As we become more known for our excellent healthcare facilities and outstanding doctors, that reputation serves to attract larger numbers of seniors and retirees to our area. That virtuous cycle tends to build on itself with a resultant increase in medical related jobs coming to Beaufort County.

One of my legislative goals for this session is to work with my friend Murrell Smith (R-Sumter), along with HHS Director Tony Keck, to see if we can reduce the regulatory impediments so that even more of the cutting edge medical industry locates in our state, and particularly in our part of the Lowcountry. High quality personnel staffing innovative medical facilities, using the best record keeping technology, equals better care at lower cost. It also creates high paying jobs and a much enhanced quality of life for residents and visitors.

Finally, I have sad news to report. Keith Marsh, the son of Chris and Barbara Marsh, passed away unexpectedly last week. Mary and I hold these good people in our prayers. As parents, we feel the anxiety of our nearly grown children making their way in the world and we are acutely aware of our inability to always be there to protect them from harm. Those wishing to may make a donation in Keith’s name at Family Promise of Beaufort County (www.familypromisebeaufortcounty.org).

Most folks know that Dr. Chris Marsh is a mainstay of the regional environmental community. As executive director of the Lowcountry Institute, located at Spring Island, Chris has worked tirelessly to increase our understanding of the natural features that make our part of the world so special. In fact, Chris Marsh is my primary advisor on all things having to do with water quality and habitat preservation as it relates to the state’s role in preserving our natural treasures.

Next week, I’ll begin my budget commentary, as well as give you an update on new additions to the Promenade.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

A fairly productive week in the House of Representatives as we wade into the hearings and presentations that will guide the particulars of our budget preparation. One of the very few positive aspects of three years of serious budget reductions is the fact that we are getting better at doing more with less. Now that there is a little more revenue, I want to continue championing the frugality that began as necessity, and look at how we can keep the austerity mindset as we structure our finances.

We have an ally in this mission in Tony Keck, Director of Health and Human Services. Tony’s budget recommendations last week were a study in how we can take better care of our most vulnerable citizens while still holding the line on expenditures. His experience and creativity have made him a standout at HHS, not only for his ability to do more with less, but also in his judgment concerning what areas can be reduced with the least disruption to the client population.

Another matter that is of great concern to this representative has to do with the status of Highway 170 and Highway 278 in Beaufort County. In fact, for some time now, those roads and their respective futures have been in the top three topics of your emails and phone calls to my office. At this writing, my meetings with SCDOT and the Infrastructure Bank seem to be heading toward a very positive outcome. I don’t want to be too specific until we can be sure of our position. For now, let’s just say that the financial markets are such that bonding costs are at historic lows and contractors are certainly bidding as though they want to work for us. Stay tuned on this one.

For some time, I have been troubled by what appears to be our state’s sacrifice of any leverage we might have had relating to the creation of the Jasper Port, the competitiveness of the Port of Charleston, as well as the health of Savannah River. As a member of the Savannah Maritime Commission, tasked by the Speaker with protecting the interests of our state in all matters having to do with what happens on or about the tidal portion of the Savannah River, I was curious (to say the least) about the DHEC board’s reversal of staff findings on the potential dredging in the Savannah River. As a commissioner, it was somewhat disconcerting to read in the paper what had occurred in a half-hour board meeting in Greenville; reversing an eight-month-old decision made by environmental professionals after thousands of man-hours of study and many months of careful deliberation.
Apparently, my discomfort was shared by every other member of the House as well. After remarks by my friend, Jim Merrill (R-Daniel Island), the House voted unanimously to retroactively remove any authority on dredging from the DHEC board. For an appointed board to take such a decision without consultation with elected representatives of the people of South Carolina is not my kind of governance. This is especially egregious considering that currently one in five jobs in our state is related to ports activity, not to mention the fact that the bulk of the drinking water in Beaufort and Jasper counties comes from the Savannah River. Friends, I know that politics can be maddening at times, but this little episode makes the Manhattan $26 trinket deal look reasonable.