Sunday, April 29, 2012

From the House

Last week, in my comments on the ongoing state government restructuring saga, I promised details of the Senate bill we in the House found so baffling. You may recall that the House has produced and passed three Department of Administration bills in the last four years, only to have them languish without Senate action. Finally, we got the Senate version, which was so convoluted it took almost a month to work through. When we finally were able to get the entire text, it has become known jokingly around the House as the RINO bill. That is “restructuring in name only.” The way it shakes out, not only is the much maligned Budget and Control Board not eliminated, but there is also a new agency, among the ten created by the bill, called the Bond Review Board, which consists of the governor, Comptroller General, Treasurer, and a Senate and House member, remarkably similar to the old Budget and Control Board. The new entity was recently reviewed by the National Credit Rating Agency. They affirmed that our AAA credit rating would be in jeopardy if the Bond Review Board feature is ratified as proposed. In addition to the fiscal integrity issues, the Senate’s 10-agency plan contains other accountability oversights and gaps. The Senate bill has created the Procurement Oversight Board and assigned board members and departments to oversee, but failed to give the agency any authority to run itself or promulgate executive actions. That leaves the decision-making authority to the old Budget and Control Board, which was never officially eliminated in the Senate’s bill. Bluffton Today One of the more curious features of the Senate bill would have an agency that provides independent fiscal impact statements on legislation under control of the General Assembly. Truly a fox in the hen house. Without some sort of independent fiscal oversight, our budget process, I fear, would soon shed its hard-won frugality. After the shock and amazement wore off, those of us in the House leadership set to work re-crafting legislation to place 85% of the old Budget and Control Board into the Department of Administration and formally dissolving the rest of the board. We have to give the governor true authority over the executive administration of our state. We will promote efficiency by reducing the number of agencies and maximizing the scope of the Department of Administration and eliminating the Budget and Control Board. In truth, we must give the governor real executive powers regardless of our opinion of the abilities or inclinations of this particular governor. I believe we can retain checks and balances to restrain executive imprudence and overreach, while creating a system that will have three branches of government. Our conversations with our Senate colleagues have to begin with that somewhat difficult and delicate balance. Finally, an update on the Medicaid security breach I recently reported. True to his word, Health and Human Services Director Tony Keck has taken proactive measures to reduce or eliminate the possibility of identity theft situations resulting from the unfortunate breach of computer security. You have probably noticed that prominent informational pieces have been running in most of the major papers in the state, including Bluffton Today. There is an appropriate apology and a list of free services offered by the agency. Among these is a free credit report that includes daily credit monitoring to detect suspicious activity, as well as a $1 million identity theft insurance policy. Again, the toll-free number is 1-888-829-6561. These things are rare, but it is best to get out in front of them. My confidence in Director Keck is unshaken.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Today is the final day of what has been an extremely exciting golf tournament at Harbour Town Golf Links on the south end of Hilton Head Island. This the first year for Royal Bank of Canada and Boeing as sponsors. I have had a few social chats with executives from both companies and they are absolutely giddy at the return on their investment in our prestigious golf week. The weather has been spectacular, the crowds were huge and properly respectful, and the golf course is in superb shape. Our hats are off to tournament director Steve Wilmot for another tremendous event.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the low-altitude flyover by the new Boeing Dreamliner. As a pilot and an admirer of beautiful aircraft, I can say without reservation that she’s a real beauty, a South Carolina beauty.

My good friend Weston Newton, currently chairman of Beaufort County Council, told me that there were dozens of photographers and motion picture cameras stationed around Sea Pines, on boats in Calibogue Sound, and all around Daufuskie Island set to capture the image of the gorgeous aircraft powering through a cloudless, blue, Lowcountry sky, with the iconic Harbour Town lighthouse in the background. I cannot wait for the release of those images. Weston and I agreed that we would probably see a photo that tells the world a lot of what they need to know about our great state.

In the last weeks as we have been on furlough, I have done a lot of walking and talking with business owners in Bluffton. What I am hearing and seeing is more information that folks need to know about South Carolina, or at least our gorgeous corner of the state. Business is good. The art galleries are full, the restaurants are bustling, and any talk of recession or downturn is a fading memory. I know Old Town Bluffton is atypical in any number of ways, from Ted Huffman’s barbeque, to Linda Potter’s watercolors, to the architecture of the waterfront Church of the Cross. Having said that, I believe we can generalize to a certain degree about the visitor portion of our economy by the fact that I met not only the regular folks from Ohio and Indiana, but also a number of Canadians, a few visitors from the UK and even a nice couple from the Caribbean coast of Columbia, South America. It seems that our international marketing efforts at Parks, Recreation, and Tourism (PRT) are starting to pay dividends.

Finally, I am pleased to report that the affordable redevelopment project along Wharf Street in Bluffton has been selected for a housing achievement award by the South Carolina Housing Finance Development Authority. The project, spearheaded by former Councilman Fred Hamilton and Mayor Lisa Sulka, actually tied with Brookside Gardens in Greenville, South Carolina. Brookside Gardens is recognized as one of the best and most progressive upward bound housing projects in the country, so we are keeping some pretty good company these days. Thanks go to my friend Marc Orlando, of the Town of Bluffton, for the information, which I submitted for the competition.

We return to session Tuesday, and as always, you will hear the particulars, whether it’s good or not so good, in this space every week.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

I appreciate all the well wishers calling with regard to the filing action last week. I especially want to thank those folks who asked to volunteer for the campaign that will now not be necessary. It is gratifying to have good folks waiting in the wings to help out if needed. Also, as chairman of the Beaufort County delegation, these developments certainly speak well for our effectiveness in handling state affairs at the local level.

We are off for the next two weeks as we go into the Easter/Passover holiday season. There will be a ton of visitors in our area as we move from the holidays to the Heritage. I know that tourists can be a little trying as they try to find their way to all the interesting sites and events in our little part of the Lowcountry. Our traffic circles often seem maze-like to the uninitiated. Please be kind. Visitors are a big part of our local economy. Poll after poll indicates that visitors rate very highly our friendliness and inclination toward helpful chat. One incident of impatience or rudeness can cancel a hundred stories of friendly locals.

We are at about the halfway point of the legislative year. Much of the legislation we are working through is complete or nearly so. This is the time when we can introduce legislation that we might want to carry over, or we can block legislation that doesn’t, even after committee and subcommittee hearings, make sense to move forward.

This year the House approved sweeping reforms to the State Retirement System. These reforms were sorely needed so that we can keep our pension promises to our employees, while also closing the door on some employees who might have gamed the system in order to bump their payments beyond what they deserved. Failure to address these oversights will create a fiscal black hole for taxpayers.

We also approved the Right to Work Act. Every South Carolinian should be able to hold a job without being required to join a union and pay dues. In our conservative state, union dues could possible be used to support political actions not in keeping with the wishes of rank and file. The Right to Work Act identified more than half dozen instances where the rights of workers were being abridged in the name of union solidarity. I have no problem with folks joining a union if they desire. However, I do have a problem with compulsory union membership as a condition of employment. With the passage of this bill, we will solidify South Carolina as a strong “Right to Work” state.

Finally, the House is moving tax reform legislation through committee. The Tax Reform Study Committee focused on creation of a fair tax code. The legislation working through the process will eliminate two thirds of the special interest sales tax exemptions, flatten income tax, lower sales tax, reform property taxes and lower burdensome taxes on small business. We expect to debate all aspects of this legislation before the end of April.

I look forward to hearing from you on all these matters as we enter the last half of session.

Again, have a great holiday and be careful; we have a lot of young people on the road as students are home for spring break. Be kind, be patient, and be safe.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

As of last week, the budget is in the hands of the Senate, to be scrutinized and amended as they see fit. As an integral part of the initial budget writing process, I will be kept in the loop regarding proposed changes. Sometimes, a few off-line conversations between House and Senate budget writers can smooth over issues that might otherwise prove contentious in the reconciliation phase.

A few of the items I think will not change are those having to do with the dollars coming to Highways 170 and 278, as well as for May River water quality and Hope Haven Rape Crisis Center. Also safe, in my view, are the changes in the Education Finance Act (EFA) formulas that will increase the state participation in the cost of our local schools. These were matters that were hashed out early in the process in conversations that included key members of Senate.

In the education vein, I was pleased that the School Choice Bill passed this week. There is a bit of confusion regarding my support of school choice in general, as well as this particular bill. My school choice support is not based on any perception of inadequacy on the part of our local school district. I think they do a tremendous job under somewhat difficult circumstances. As the recent awards indicate, our local schools and the teachers that power them are among the best in the state. However, some areas of our state are not blessed with what we in Beaufort County enjoy as far as our schools are concerned. In my view, parents in those parts of the state should receive tax relief when they must seek out alternative education for their children. I think it is a matter of basic fairness.

Also, a very hotly contested bill passed Thursday. It says that if you are receiving unemployment benefits, are offered a job, and fail the drug screen that might be a term of your potential employment, then your unemployment benefits are curtailed. The inability to pass a drug test speaks directly to ones availability for employment. On the face of it, the measure seems draconian, but upon closer review, it not only supports employer’s desire for drug-free workplaces, but also saves the cost of referring the applicant for the job, the interview costs, and gives a relative leg up to those job seekers who are more motivated and ready for responsible employment. In truth, I was initially skeptical of this area of potential labor law. However, when asked to make a case against the bill, I could not.

We will be on furlough for the next two weeks as the Senate works through the budget. It will save the state a few dollars, although those of us in leadership will continue pretty much on the job. For this representative, being available to consult with Senate colleagues during the furlough pays a dividend in cooperation and clarity of intent.

Once again, our constituent contacts were in the range above 300 for the week. As always, we appreciate and enjoy your comments and concerns. We are grateful for your kind words, and take to heart those instances when you feel we have fallen short of the mark. The important thing is that the conversation continues.