Wednesday, January 30, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

Got a lot of emails and calls on the last column, especially my good report on the work of DHEC Director Catherine Templeton. Seems that many of you didn’t have a very good impression of Director Templeton, seemingly based on what may have been reported in the press over the last eleven months. It’s not too much of a stretch for me to suggest that the newspapers sometimes have a different perspective than a member of Ways and Means. We need department leaders who are willing to assess the needs of their department in terms of the mission with which they are charged. If they can do a creditable job with fewer dollars from the taxpayers, I applaud their creativity and ability.

Speaking of creativity and ability, we heard from Dr. John Magill, who is Director of the State Department of Mental Health. Dr. Magill’s department has jurisdiction over the state’s mental hospitals, as well as the joint state and community-sponsored mental health clinics and centers. With the recent horrific events in Colorado and Connecticut, a sharper focus on the state’s mental health assets seems prudent. In general, the agency gets high marks and the director does much with a modest budget.

There is one significant area, however, where the cost/benefit ratio seems questionable. The program for violent sexual offenders costs the state somewhere in the area of $65,000 per inmate per year, which is about five times what we pay to house prisoners in the regular prison population. Under my instruction, we have asked Dr. Magill to send out requests for proposals from other agencies, prisons, and even other states to take our violent sexual offenders and to either treat or incarcerate these people.

One of the areas where we are getting great results is our tele-psychiatry program. It is essentially tele-medicine but geared toward mental health. It takes place in hospital emergency rooms and other medically supervised venues. The program has been extremely productive and cost effective. Many other states are asking for our help in setting up their own programs. This cutting-edge service delivery model is particularly appropriate for rural hospitals where mental health needs are critical and assets are scarce. My hope is that any savings we can glean from the sexual offender reform can be funneled into this creative program.

Moving to road financing, I want you to know that our own Craig Forrest, Sun City resident and Second District and District 118 Highway Commissioner is Chairman of the Transportation Infrastructure Taskforce. This is the group charged with looking for ways to increase the efficiency of our roads, and to come up with ways to finance building and maintaining those roads we are going to need in the near future. The projected costs for even a modestly scaled program to get us up to a fairly safe and serviceable level are in the tens of billions of dollars. Since we only take in about $1.5 billion per year, and that doesn’t even adequately maintain our present roads, we are looking at a bottleneck that may strangle our job creation efforts, and seriously hamper the growth of our tourism industry.

We are at a point where we either step up or risk falling so far behind our neighboring states that we will never regain parity. When truckers in our state spend more money on fixing their vehicles because of bad roads than they pay in fuel taxes, we should view that as a wake up call.

Next week, I will float a proposal in this space for a way to possibly address our dire infrastructure needs in a reasonably short time. Whenever there is something that needs to be done, I always count on your wisdom. This time will be no exception.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

The first week of session did not produce much on the legislative side. Bills were being read across the desk and assigned to committees. After bills pass committee, they come back to the floor for debate. Anything of note, at that time, will be reported to you in this space.

The constituent contacts were back up to over 350, with many of you wanting to know if there were any significant developments on the security breach at the Department of Revenue. If there is any new information to report, you will hear the details here.

While there was not much to report as far as legislation, there was a meeting put together by this legislator, USCB Chancellor Jane Upshaw and Vice-Chancellor Lynn McGee concerning a key feature of our delegation agenda. It had to do with our commitment to vigorously push for funding parity for our local branch of the University of South Carolina system. This meeting started as a routine get-together with USC branch officials and a few legislators, but quickly blossomed into an event that was later characterized by Dr. Upshaw, a lady not usually given to hyperbole, as nothing short of “historic.”

As the larger contingent of university officials began to arrive and the full scope of the event began to be realized, the entire auditorium filled to capacity. The Beaufort County delegation was the point of the spear on this issue, and included participation by Rep. Weston Newton, who is very knowledgeable in this matter, Rep. Andy Patrick, Rep. Shannon Erickson, and Sen. Tom Davis.

What made the meeting truly historic was the fact that all the chancellors of the branch campuses, as well as the President of the University of South Carolina, Dr. Harris Pastides, were in attendance, and all were agreed that the parity issue needed solution, and that solution was to happen this year. To make the commitment all the more emphatic was the fact that as the meeting came to order, nearly all the members whose districts contained branch campuses were in the room, as were about half of the members of Ways and Means Committee. This included Rep. Jim Merrill and Rep. Chip Limehouse, the Subcommittee Chairman for Higher Education.

Dr. Pastides remarks left no room for doubt that funding parity was a priority of the university system and a priority to be accomplished this year. Our own Dr. Upshaw took the podium and made her persuasive argument as to the necessity of the change, and the benefits that would flow from an immediate remedy for a deficiency that had languished for far too long.

As much as this amazing event seemed to almost spontaneously spring forth from some fountainhead of enlightenment, the truth is somewhat more prosaic. It had to do with the fact that Dr. Upshaw and Dr. McGee, along with your Beaufort delegation, have been building the foundation for this remarkable consensus for quite some time. This “historic” meeting was the product of dozens of smaller meetings in offices and restaurants across the state. All the good preparation had the expected outcome, although we were all a little surprised at the degree of unanimity and enthusiasm.

One thing that does not surprise me is the work ethic of our delegation. The addition of Rep. Weston Newton, as expected, has made a tremendous difference in our chemistry and effectiveness. As Weston becomes a little more accustomed to the new venue for his service, we will lift our game even higher.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

Mary and I appreciate all the calls, emails, and Christmas cards we received during the holidays. It is both heartening and humbling to realize how many of you who started as political supporters have become personal friends. We certainly try to do a good job for all our constituents, but somehow it is a little different when you realize you are taking care of your friends and their families.

In that vein, I had a good meeting with my friend David Brown regarding the Osprey Village project. Osprey Village is the work of a group of dedicated parents hoping to create a “purpose-driven neighborhood” to house and provide meaningful work for their developmentally challenged adult children in our area. The idea is very compelling and should not only potentially reduce costs but also could allow these folks to become part of the larger community, as well as contribute to the economic vitality of Southern Beaufort County.

Already, an organization serving this population called PEP (Programs for Exceptional People) is an integral part of a Bluffton based business called BottlesUp, owned by internationally known glass artist Laurel Herter. Once a week, a contingent from PEP arrives at the BottlesUp facility on Heyward Street in Old Town Bluffton. These folks assemble and install the caps and rings on these gorgeous designer water bottles. Not only are they outstanding workers, they are cheerful and exceptionally conscientious in their duties. I believe many of the parts of the Osprey Village model are in place. We will hear more from David and company as this model comes to realization.

My comments last week that good communication is about 90% of good governance brought a lot of comment. One of the folks who seems to have taken it to heart is the candidate for Weston Newton’s old seat on County Council, Tabor Vaux. Tabor was until recently an assistant solicitor in the office of my friend Duffie Stone. He is now working in the family law firm, but has taken time out from his legal duties for extended conversations with each member of the Beaufort County delegation. We are all impressed with his level of commitment and his understanding of the issues currently facing the county. Many of those issues are going to involve hard choices. If preparation and dedication make for good decisions, we are very likely going to see another effective councilman sitting in the Bluffton seat on Beaufort County Council.

Finally, I always beat the drum for not drinking and driving and having a designated driver. As the father of teen-agers, I guess I’m just hard wired for that. However, a good friend called the other day with an idea that was so good, I just wanted to pass it along. This fellow is the father of kids in high school and college. Every Friday and Saturday night, he puts $25 on the kitchen table so that if any of his kids or any of their friends have anything to drink, they can take a cab to his house and pay for it with that $25.
We all know that a DUI will be about a thousand times more costly than that cab ride. As parents, we are constantly and acutely aware that drunk driving can sometimes also involve the loss of that which is infinitely more precious than any amount of money.

Next week, I’ll have some play-by-play on the new session, but I just had to pass along that piece of practical wisdom. Politics is important, but for me, it’s always a notch or two below keeping our families safe.