Wednesday, June 27, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

I was disappointed in the necessity of having extra session time, simply because we didn’t get our work done in the constitutionally allotted period. We did, however, get the state retirement system mess sorted out, among other things. Much of the heavy lifting on the House side was done by Rep. Jim Merrill (R-Charleston), Rep. Kenny Bingham (R-Cayce) and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg).

State retirement system funding stability is important for this area, not only because we have a number of state retirees living in our neighborhoods. One of the things that companies look for when seeking a location to expand or relocate is any potential taxation surprises lurking in state government. With the new system configuration, we are able to go forward without billions of dollars of potential retirement liability hanging over our heads. This was the year it had to be done and we made it happen, even if it took longer than it should have.

Here is basically what it looks like:
We have created what is called a “Rule of 90” to define eligibility for state retirement in South Carolina. To retire under our system, you add your age and the number of years of service--if it adds up to 90, you can retire, assuming you met the other criteria. This primarily affects new hires, as current workers were hired under a different set of promises, which have to be kept. Employee contribution to the system will rise from 6.5% to 8%. This will be done over three years at .5% increase per year. If this is not adequate to stabilize the system, then employer (state) contributions will rise at an equal rate as employee contributions in the future.

The TERI (Teachers and Employees Incentive) program will be discontinued for new hires and allowed to run out for those for covered employees by 2018. Vesting changes to 8 years with an ability to purchase time into your retirement. That is actuarially neutral. If employees wish to return to work, they may do so, but if they earn more than $10,000, their monthly annuity will end for the year. The retirement system for law enforcement officers called PORS (Police Officer Retirement System) is largely similar to the regular retirement with a few minor exceptions.

One of the features that has been something of a concern is the retirement plan for state elected officials called GARS (General Assembly Retirement System). New members will now have essentially the same retirement as other state employees. Current officials will retain the GARS but will pay a higher premium. This, however, may be changed in the future as there is a study committee investigating legislative pay and benefits.

Another feature of the new system is the creation of PEBA (Public Employee Benefit Authority) to oversee and manage the system. This new authority has an 11- member board, with 4 members being public employees. It has an executive director charged with making regular reports. PEBA assumes one of the functions of the much-maligned Budget and Control Board.

This important reform is passed by the General Assembly with a high likelihood of being signed by the governor in the near future. While a functional and stable state retirement system may not directly affect many of you, it does indirectly affect us all in that massive, ill-defined fiscal liabilities ultimately drive up our borrowing costs as well as make it difficult to make accurate budget projections.
Next week, more restructuring updates.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

After being out of proper session for a week, I want to share my take on what has happened and, unfortunately, what has not happened. First, the good news.

We have a new delegation member with the primary win by Weston Newton. We all look forward to working with the new representative from District 120. Weston is a hard worker and has a good grasp on all the issues of local concern. His addition to the new Beaufort/Jasper Delegation will begin to pay dividends the second Tuesday of next year as the General Assembly reconvenes.

I was impressed by the quality of the campaigns of both Chairman Newton and Councilman Stewart. They are both friends of mine and I had very high expectations for the contest. With the number of well-attended debates, both candidates had the time and the ability to articulate their respective visions for the benefit of the new district. To my knowledge, neither campaign showed any interest in personal attacks, unfair tactics, or anything other than presenting the best they had to offer. I am proud of the example they set, and I sincerely hope their campaigns become the new norm for South Carolina politics.

What has not been accomplished can once again be placed at the doorstep of the “other” chamber of the General Assembly. While our Senator Tom Davis does a creditable job, it’s like he is the lone ranger when it comes to passing even common sense measures though the Senate. For example, the Senate killed two out of three major tax reform proposals passed by the House. The Senate killed the Freedom of Information Act expansion. This House-passed bill would have eliminated research charges and exorbitant printing charges for public records requests, as well as open the state email accounts of lawmakers to the public. After all the talk of “transparency” and open government, here is the real information: these folks have no interest in making our government more open. We pass what we believe in.

The School Choice Bill passed by the House this year died in the Senate. For the eighth time since 1994, the House passed strict spending caps on the state budget. For the eighth time since 1994, the Senate rejected spending caps of any kind. Even the Taxpayer Fairness Act was killed. This House-passed bill assured that law-abiding taxpayers are treated with respect and makes government agencies enforce the tax laws in a fair manner.

I was particularly steamed by the rejection of the Angel Investment Act. This is a bill that would offer tax credits to those that invest in small technology startup companies. We seem to talk a good game of job creation, but when it comes down to creative measures to get it done, somehow the Senate seems to fall short. There are a couple of companies being housed at the Don Ryan Center for Innovation at Buckwalter Place right now that are one or two angel investments away from success. Laurel Herter’s BottlesUp outfit in downtown Bluffton is one angel investment away from going global. Perhaps motivated by the tax credits of the Angel Investment Act, that last investment might have allowed Laurel to hire half a hundred folks instead of her current half dozen.

Next week, we will continue the session recap. In truth, there are some very positive things you need to hear about.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to thank all who emailed, called or wrote with regard to our Jasper Port piece that appeared in the Savannah Morning News as well as several other outlets. Most of us understand the importance of the port as a future driver of the economy in our area of the Lowcountry. It’s pretty clear we are in for a long struggle. I’ve been on this for 10 years and it might take that long again to see this to completion. So be it.

The Marine Corps license plate passed this session. I am grateful for all the help and support from the Moss Creek Marines. This is a great group whose mission is to help Marines, especially those returning from deployment. If you want to know more, google Moss Creek Marines. They can use your support as they have much to do and not a lot of resources.

At long last, the Golf Cart Bill is now the Golf Cart Law. There are so many people and groups to thanks for the work they put into this multi-year effort. My good friend, Sheriff Tanner was instrumental in the refinement and passage of this bill, as was Senator Davis. The good folks over on Daufuskie Island made a lot of calls and wrote a ton of letters in support of the cause. Obviously, the Sun City Legislative Affairs Committee deserves a great deal of credit for visiting with a certain senator and helping him understand how misguided his hold on the bill was. I promise I will only call upon this posse when they are absolutely needed.

In truth, it is a little disappointing to have spent as much time as we did on such a commonsense piece of legislation. Golf carts, when properly outfitted and insured, are a great way to get around the neighborhood, go to the grocery store, pharmacy or doctor’s appointment. They are inexpensive to operate, don’t pollute, and allow us to have a little fun as well. Why it took years to get this through is tough to figure.

Last week I had the pleasure of honoring the Town of Bluffton as well as two of the excellent people who make the town as successful as it is. Marc Orlando was recognized by the full body of the House of Representatives for his unique contributions to the town, and especially his efforts in maintaining the character, integrity, and historical coherence of the Old Town. His role is often to mediate between those who want to keep Bluffton as it is and those who wish to develop their property to it’s best and most productive uses. It is a tough place to stand but Marc is known as an honest broker with credibility in both camps. He deserves this recognition.

The Town of Bluffton was recognized by the House for its good work in the May River watershed. The award was accepted by Town engineer, Ron Bullman. Ron came over from the private sector with a “can-do” attitude and gets things done. He also had talks with DHEC that will continue as we search for ways to finds grants to assist the town in restoring the river to full shellfish harvesting.

Finally, my good friend, Jeff Fulghum is out with his first book, called The Bluffton Experience. It is about the burning of Bluffton during the Civil War, among other things. Jeff, as you may remember, is a decorated Army veteran. He fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan and continues to serve as a staff sergeant in the National Guard. Expect to hear much more from this talented Bluffton native.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Response

Bluffton Today

Imagine my shock and amazement a couple of weeks ago as I opened my Savannah Morning News to find that the bulk of the Beaufort/Jasper Legislative Delegation were being termed “traitors” to the cause of economic development and opportunity. In addition, the political sensibilities of the overwhelming majority of our constituents were being cast as “pretty pathetic.”

The language was so over-the-top and wrongheaded, I assumed Mary had picked up a checkout tabloid at the grocery.

As the phone began to ring, most folks were as aghast as we were at this nonsense. Especially considering my work in the private sector, and for the last decade in the public sector, has been largely about job creation and economic development. Ten years ago, the three primary supporters of the idea of a Jasper Port were the late Henry Moss, longtime Jasper County Manager, then Jasper County Rep. Thayer Rivers, and this now traitorous representative from Bluffton.

Of what grave, treasonous offense might our delegation be guilty?

We voted with the overwhelming majority of the SC House on a measure to assure that action items passed by bi-state boards and commissions include a majority of both delegations. Pretty radical stuff. Your editorial claims that such a move places discretion in these matters with the Savannah River Maritime Board, which is trying to kill the deepening project. Very interesting in that the Maritime Board recently endorsed deepening of the Savannah River channel to 45 feet.

The real issue is this: We agree that the Savannah River needs to be dredged. The best science seems to indicate 45 ft. is a safe depth and we have agreed to that level of channel work. However, if the manner and degree of channel work is environmentally unsound or done in a way that makes the Jasper site untenable, we will oppose that strenuously. The current effort by the Savannah Port Authority and its apologists to conflate any environmental objections with some scheme to derail any deepening is patently false and rhetorically flimsy.

However, it does remind me of advice I received from a state representative from Georgia early in this Jasper Port process. He told me that the SPA will never agree to allow a perceived competitor on its river, regardless of the excellent economic rationale. They will Delay, Divide, and Denounce. They will buy your friends and create political opportunities for your opponents. They learned this from the consortium of paper and chemical manufacturers along the Savannah River during the 1970s. When their excessive groundwater extraction started to cause saltwater intrusion into the aquifer along the coast of South Carolina, they rolled out the DDD strategy to good effect. By the time the feds stepped in, the issue was largely moot.

During the run-up to all this “traitor” business, no one from your office, to my knowledge, called any member of our delegation to hear our version of events. Perhaps you didn’t need to know. What you do need to know is this:

1: No member of the Beaufort/Jasper Delegation will support further damage to our environmental heritage. No amount of disingenuous promise of future benefit or the threat of further cartoonish denunciation will move us to accept a version of risk/benefit analysis that places all the benefit on the Georgia side and all the risk with South Carolina.

2: We want to build a port in Jasper County in partnership with the Savannah Port. However, if you think the Delay, Divide and Denounce strategy will again win the day, I urge you to reconsider. This is a different world. We will build this port. I have invested ten years in this project, and we are in it for the long march. The economics support our position and just as importantly, our prosperity will not come at the expense of yours.

3: You might want to take a lesson from your colleagues at Bluffton Today. They are professionals. They play fair and their opinions are credible, largely because they pay attention and, more often than not, reflect an informed community consensus.

I regret the necessity of responding in kind to your harsh editorial. I imagine you feel as though you are just playing hardball for the home team. In truth, each time you flush away a bit of your credibility in unwarranted attack or unsound reasoning, you reduce your value to that patron.