Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week was an out-of-the-park home run, record-breaking week for your representative as far as constituent contacts were concerned. With your responses to my comments on the river and the enormous concern over the governor’s vetoes, we fielded 578 of your emails, calls and notes to our office last week. We also got a pretty vivid lesson on what the residents of District 118 care most about. None of what we learned was new or startling, but the passionate nature and the seriousness of the concerns were impressive to say the least.

We know you care about our natural resources. The veto of the Sea Grant Consortium funding was tantamount to running the lawn mower over a nest of ground wasps. Many of your messages spoke eloquently of why you chose to live in our part of the Lowcountry and how the clean water and the lovely, green landscapes captured you from your first visit.

We also heard from the sportfishing community, not only locally but from around the country. Sportfishing is a billion plus dollar industry in our state, which feeds into both hospitality and real estate. The Sea Grant Consortium has been a critical supporter of the science that helps to sustain and expand our policy successes in protecting the water quality upon which this industry thrives. As always, my thanks go to Dr. Chris Marsh from the Lowcountry Institute for his succinct and persuasive arguments in favor of our override of this veto.

Another of the areas where our understanding was reinforced had to do with how you feel about the arts in your community. Our state rarely makes the top lists in industrial development or educational attainment, but we are well known as a place where the arts are a vital part of every locality, none more so than Beaufort County. Even without such luminaries as Joe Bowler, Jonathan Green, or West Fraser, our state benefits greatly from the number and quality of working and aspiring artists contributing to a legion of shops and galleries that not only make for an interesting quality of life for residents but also attract visitors from the world over. The thought that we might do away with our Arts Commission was for many folks, pretty close to unthinkable.

Although many employees have not had a raise for a while, the veto of the teacher’s 2% raise created something of a firestorm. Teachers are a special class of public employee that has unique responsibilities in transmitting the best of our culture to future generations. The ability to compete with our neighboring states for the best teachers is a real competitive concern for this representative. While I supported the across-the-board raises, I would like to continue the inquiry into how to properly reward the best teachers while also identifying their less productive colleagues, with an eye toward perhaps directing them to other employment. That is an issue with which Secretary Zais has been tasked, about which we will hear more next session.

I was proud of the Beaufort/Jasper Delegation in the handling of these vetoes. We were in solidarity with each other as well as the overwhelming majority of our constituents in protecting the budgets of those entities we recognize as core governmental functions.

Next week, I will finish up the veto analysis. We will also look at some of the accomplishments of the last session, as well as look forward to next session with the new presumptive representative from District 120, my friend Weston Newton.

Friday, July 20, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

My comments last week in this space have hit a nerve around Bluffton. We received a huge number of calls and emails, largely on the river issue. We have been traveling, so at this point, I don’t have an exact number, but it is in excess of 200 contacts, almost all expressing some degree of outrage. While I stick by my original inclination to let this be a local “neighbor helping neighbor” enforcement model, we are nonetheless investigating what might need to happen if this untenable situation does not self-correct.

While my inquiry is still in the preliminary stage, it appears as though control of the estuarine rivers is a responsibility shared by federal, state and local authorities. There are interlocking relationships that define who does what. For example, the SC Department of Natural Resources has authority to declare “No Wake” zones, but they can share enforcement authority with both municipal police and county sheriff’s departments. However, before the police or sheriff personnel can enforce the state designation, they must be certified by the SCDNR. That certification involves 40 hrs. of training supplied by SCDNR. Unfortunately, the certification classes have been in hiatus for several years. This has had the effect of largely restricting the number of officers available to the various levels of law enforcement who might be available to help with the current situation.

As we follow the matter on the local waters, I will continue to help define our options. Again, my hope is that we will solve this in the community. Failing that, we will do what is necessary to ameliorate the problem before simple bad form turns into the inevitable tragedy.

Another aspect of my job that deals directly with our waters is the recent veto of the funding for the Sea Grant Program by Governor Haley and her crew of advisors. When I first read the veto statement, I thought it might have been a typo or simply a transcription mistake. Unfortunately, it was just a mistake.

Within hours of the veto announcement, I received an email from my good friend, Dr. Chris Marsh, executive director of the Lowcountry Institute, located on Spring Island. Chris has been one of my most insightful advisors on water quality issues for many years. He pointed out that the veto removed $420,000 from the state budget, but cost the state around $6 million in grants already in the pipeline. If the veto stands, the $6 million will not return to the federal treasury, it will go to other states, helping them protect their natural resources instead of helping protect ours. Many of these grants are continuations of research that may have been going on for years. The potential less to our state in useful, actionable knowledge would compound the current grant losses exponentially. In looking back over just my time in the House, the Sea Grant Consortium has brought grants to the state that total more than $50 million, at a cost of around $5 million. In my view, that’s a pretty good cost/benefit ratio.

If things go as planned, by the time you read this, we will have overridden not only this unwise veto, but also the Arts Commission veto, and all the other unfortunate “political messaging” coming out of the governor’s office. In truth, many of us are somewhat in sympathy with the governor’s intentions, but the veto is not the proper venue for those conversations.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

I hope everyone had a great Fourth of July holiday. That said, there is an issue of water safety that must be addressed. We were out on the water for the last few weekends and the level and amount of bad behavior was stunning. In the 35 years we have been in the Lowcountry, I have never seen anything like it. The combination of more boats, more powerful boats, and obvious alcohol abuse on the water makes for a very dangerous situation. With the number of children being pulled behind these boats on tubes or other water toys, we are likely to find ourselves with bad consequences.

It was about this time last year that I urged all you locals out there to help clean up some of the problems on the various sandbars. Sometimes new people or visitors just don’t understand what the limitations are when you get a ton of folks on the sandbars, including kids and dogs and cookout rigs of various sorts. I believe, as do most of you, in the power of constructive conversation among friends when it comes to addressing these kinds of issues.

Before this becomes a massive law enforcement situation, please talk to your friends, maybe your spouse, or visitors about the rules of the road when it comes to safety on the water. Right now, the wakes from hundreds of boats are seriously eroding areas of the shoreline, not to mention tearing up docks and floats. One way or another, this has to stop. I prefer the path of individual responsibility, which worked pretty well on the sandbars, instead of packing the river with contingents of Coast Guard, Department of Natural Resources, and other law enforcement entities. For me, it is better to have voluntary self-restraint in these matters. Otherwise, the inevitable tragedy will drive a government response. We can’t complain about the “nanny state” if we can’t act in a reasonable, safe manner out on the public waterways.

Obviously the big news last week was the Supreme Court decision regarding ObamaCare. I was disappointed that the individual mandate was not struck down. For my reasons, see above. While there was a great deal to be disappointed about, there were also features that offer the states some leeway in lessening the more onerous aspects of the law. For our state, had the mandatory expansion of Medicaid been upheld, I’m afraid the General Assembly would have become little more than a funding mechanism for indigent healthcare.

As a relatively poor state, Medicaid currently covers around a million out of the 4.6 million residents of South Carolina. Had the mandatory expansion been upheld, we would have added an additional 500,000 people to the program. That is something around 1 out of 3 South Carolinians depending on the government for health insurance. Just as we have gotten our fiscal house in better order, such a blow would have made a mess of our hard-won frugality.

The other feature of the ruling had to do with allowing the states to opt out of the expansion of Medicaid without fear of having the federal government punish us by reducing the current 70% match for the investment we make in Medicaid. Honestly, this was a huge concern. Our education budget is currently being diminished by the federal Dept. of Ed. for falling short of a mandatory level of support for special education. If the federal government was allowed this form of retribution on Medicaid, the whole notion of state’s sovereignty would be out the window.

There is much more to be said on this topic in weeks to come.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

“Endless Summer” was a great Beach Boys record from my youth. The Senate Boys are creating a less sonorous record, which might be called “Endless Session.” Nearly a month has elapsed since the official end of session and we are finally getting around to passing a budget. Following along with my rather shaky musical metaphor, it reminds me of a line from an old Elvis Costello song which posits “I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused.”

Try as I might, this representative cannot seem to work up even a little amusement at the Senate’s version of responsible fiscal management. The House has articulated a spending plan that provides, among other things, tax relief for small business in the state. We all know small businesses are the true “job creators” in our sputtering economy. The Senate has answered with a list of pet projects and general silliness that seems to have no real connection with the needs of the folks who sent them to Columbia. The projects, for the most part, were not vetted through the House process, but turn up in the reconciliation effort in the conference committee. Not remotely amusing, try as I might.

The compromise reached last Thursday was not to my liking, but sometimes you hold your nose and hope the governor will have the sense to veto some of the extravagant and unneeded items placed in the document. Our Senator Davis does what he can, but the Senate just seems to be so out of touch with the needs of the average South Carolinian, they might as well be “wasting away in Margaritaville.”

OK, I’m done for now with my little rant. I’ll have more particulars later. It is the 4th of July and we have celebrating to do. In line with getting out on our waterways and appreciating the holiday with a beverage and a light snack, I want to throw out a few look-sees for our local businesses.

Capt. Chris Shoemaker was born and brought up on the May River and can help you either catch fish or simply see the sights around our pristine estuary. Give him a call for your next adventure.

Those who might want to look into learning how to work a stand-up paddleboard, the fellow to call is Captain Ru-Ru (aka Capt. Rufus Weaver). Rufus is a great athlete and a gifted teacher. He can have you or your eight-year-old child up and paddling before you know it. Just don’t ask him about his Rugby career or you might learn more than you bargained for. Seriously, give Capt. RuRu a call for a great day on the water.

When it’s time to cook the steaks, Adam Simoneaux at Scott’s Meats is who you need to see. Prime meats cut by a third generation grocer and entrepreneur make for a celebratory cookout worthy of the birth of our nation. Adam, along with sidekick Murray D, is in the process of creating a Bluffton version of Whole Foods in his family’s strip of shops across from the Squat and Gobble. If you don’t see what you want, just ask. The thing I ask for is one of the chocolate chip banana breads made by Adam’s lovely wife, Lindy. Consequently, your representative has momentarily added a pound or two of banana bread weight. It’s too good to pass up.

Next week, less rant and more substance. Have a safe holiday.