Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last year, as part of the leadership of the South Carolina House of Representatives, I was involved in the formulation and subsequent rollout of an ambitious two-year legislative agenda. Most of the heavy lifting for this project was done during and after the 2010 elections. A large portion of what ultimately became part of this agenda was contributed by residents of Beaufort County and, in particular, District 118.

Your calls, letters, emails, and visits to my office are a gold mine of practical wisdom that often finds its way into legislative form. As you have heard me say more than a few times, it is your input that makes me a successful legislator. I am personally blessed with a huge cadre of experienced leaders from both the public and private sectors who regularly share what was successful in the places they lived before retiring or relocating to our beautiful part of the Lowcountry. Needless to say, my open door has been of immense benefit to our state.

Over the last two years, I worked with many of my legislative colleagues, especially our hard-charging Beaufort County Delegation, in passing the major features of this ambitious legislative agenda. Some of these items were meaningful tax reform, illegal immigration reform, voter ID, charter school reform, school choice, and a host of policies to enable small business owners to secure funding through the private sector.

Part of the job of leadership is to keep the momentum going as the inevitable fatigue starts to set in around the end of the first month of session. One of the more effective motivational strategies became known as “wicked Wednesdays.” We would not leave the chambers on Wednesdays until each item of that week’s list of assignments was completed. In spite of some bitter complaints, we managed, in two years, to pass good bills that together amounted to 25 serious, critically needed reforms. Interestingly, many of the most serious complainers are now the most proud of our record of achievement. Go figure.

There are three weeks left in the current two-year legislative session. Those bills left stranded without completion will start the laborious process again on the second Tuesday of 2013. I am chagrinned to report that over half of the House-passed reform measures are currently languishing in South Carolina Senate. Lest you think I have completely lost patience with these princelings, it needs to be noted that they have passed several items, including the Born Alive Act, the joint election of Governor and Lt. Governor, voter ID, illegal immigration, and a tepid version of government restructuring.

Next week, I will begin a recitation of some of the important bills passed by the House that await action in the Senate. In fact, if there is not a serious uptick in Senate productivity, it may take several weeks to list and briefly explain those bills in danger of stranding.

Finally, I need to commend those folks who were part of the Sun City Government Affairs Committee who were instrumental in the passage of the Golf Cart Bill by helping to explain to the Senator from Horry County the merits of said legislation.

Also, to those doubters who called and accused their representative of fabricating such an uplifting story, I can only say “we live in a world of wonders.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

I promised last week to give you an update on H.3259, also known as the Golf Cart Bill. The story I had in mind at that time was another of my “I’m frustrated with the Senate” tales. You are probably tired of hearing about these folks and I am certainly tired of enduring the silliness that seems to make its way into their process. The real story, as it turned out, was nothing short of inspirational.

The Golf Cart Bill, as you may recall, is a piece of legislation I have been working on for years. Its local application has to do with folks living in the gated communities or on Daufuskie Island. For these people, golf carts are part of the good life. It is inexpensive, non-polluting transportation that happens to be a fun way to get around as well. Unfortunately, a quirk in state law did not allow the majority of cart owners to use their vehicles to best advantage and still be covered by insurance. My efforts were to allow for reasonable use of this “green” mode of transport and still make certain that people’s insurance was still in force.

The bill, in its current form, had been around for almost two years. The House and the DOT had vetted it. Sheriff Tanner and state law enforcement were OK with the bill as long as the golf carts didn’t travel on major highways or more than three miles from either a user’s driveway or the main gate of a plantation. It was also on third reading in the Senate. Unfortunately, it was being held up by two senators, for reasons only they seemed to understand. This is where it gets interesting.

I was able to have a chat with one of the senators, and he finally removed his hold. The other senator, from Horry County, wouldn’t budge. It was time to hand this thing over to the stockholders.

My friends, Aaron Crosby and Bill Greenwood, started a call campaign over on Daufuskie. They called the senator in question at his office and at home, expressing their displeasure with his activity relating to the bill. Also, on Tuesday, we had the Sun City Government Affairs Committee come up to talk with their legislators. When apprised of the situation, there was an offer on the table for these good people to visit with the senator at his office. The offer was accepted and the committee went over as a group and politely explained their position to the senator in question, who promptly released his hold on the bill.

My sincere gratitude goes out to all involved in this inspirational example of participatory democracy. There is a lesson here that should not be missed. So many times, I see our legislative process distorted and sometimes hijacked by egos and turf battles that have absolutely nothing to do with why we were sent here. Politics should be our method of conflict resolution, not simply a platform for playing out our ideological dramas.

I am fortunate that District 118 is seemingly comprised of individuals with a pretty good idea of what the legislative process is supposed to be. I get three to four hundred reminders weekly in the form of calls, letters, emails and visits from these constituents. I am certain that if every governmental district, be it county, state, or federal, had the level of participation we enjoy here, our broken politics would be made whole and far, far fewer of our national injuries would be self-inflicted.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week was “crossover” in the General Assembly. As many of you know, that is the day after which bills passed in one side of the Assembly crossover to the other side only with great difficulty.

It serves to expedite matters that may have languished, especially this year as we are in the second year of our two-year legislative session. All bills not disposed will have to be resubmitted after the second Tuesday of next year.

Consequently, we debated over 75 individual bills in a pretty challenging week. The good news is that we got some important things accomplished. Of the four major initiatives under consideration, we did good work on three. In baseball, I would have been pretty happy with a 750 batting average. In lawmaking, with the stakes as high as they are, not so much.

We did manage to pass meaningful tax reform. We cut the individual income tax for residents and small business owners. We made the tax code somewhat flatter, fairer, and more competitive. What we did was pass bills that were put forth by the GOP Tax Reform Committee, on which I serve. It should be noted that our efforts, laudable as they may be, are not the final word, as these measures have to go to the Senate for final approval, then to the Governor. We, however, have done our part. Another aspect of tax reform is a bill that gives local property tax relief to the homeowner trying to sell a recently vacated home. If you decide to downsize and move to a smaller place, under current law, the new house is your primary residence and is assessed at 4%, while your former residence, now vacant, is assessed at 6%, a 50% tax increase.

Under the new bill passed by the House, your assessment will remain at 4% for one year to give you a better shot at selling without taking a big tax hit. In my view, this is a common sense piece of legislation that helps homeowners as well as the real estate industry in general.

We also closed the huge, galling loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). By a vote of 100-1, we passed a reform that makes it illegal for government agencies, local and state governments, school districts, and yes, even legislators from charging unreasonable fees to provide public records, as well as makes it all happen in a timely fashion. Another common-sense piece of work that has been a long time in the works.

Finally, the sales tax reform passed by the House does not qualify as reform in any true sense of the word. Our proposal was to cut more than $220 million in sales tax exemptions and lower the sales tax from the current 6%. Well, friends, we failed. The bill that eventually passed cuts a paltry $13 million in exemptions and served mainly to highlight the power of the lobbying community. The backbone of many of my colleagues simply dissolved before hearings even began. I rarely display overt displeasure with members of my caucus, but this matter is important, urgent, and a test of principle. We were tested and found lacking.

I want to thank my friend Rep. Bill Taylor (R-Aiken) for his help on this week’s content. I was just buried in work, and he helped pull this thing together. Next week, the Golf Cart Bill saga gets strange.