Wednesday, March 27, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was another long, hard week at the statehouse. After the budget marathon the week before last, we came back to clean up those matters we neglected while working the numbers.


One of those important things we spent a lot of time on was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) bill. As you know, my friend and colleague, Rep. Weston Newton is on Judiciary Committee and he has emerged as one of the leading voices in structuring this essential legislation. His credentials as an advocate of open government are well regarded, especially considering his long experience in this area while chairman of Beaufort County Council. Our recent experience at the Jasper Delegation meeting with the FOIA controversy during the comment period highlighted the necessity to reform this crucial window of “sunshine.” We must reform and further define the rights of citizens and news organizations in obtaining information, and the responsibilities of public officials to provide appropriate information in a timely and cost effective manner.


I am a strong advocate of open government and I fully support the elimination of the blanket legislative exemption from FOIA. It is unfair and unwise to excuse the lawmakers from the reach of the law. That said, I am concerned that there are privacy issues, especially between legislators and constituents, which must somehow be respected as we move to reform the law.


There are many conversations that I have with constituents who might, for instance, need help in getting medical attention from MUSC on holidays. That information is private. When I help people who are working through tax issues, or foreclosures, or regulatory matters with state agencies, I believe there is a legitimate expectation on the part of the constituent that our communication be held in confidence. If such an expectation is eroded, I know that taxpayers will be reluctant to ask for help with things we are there to help them with. There is obviously a delicate balance, but I would be uncomfortable in closing the door on any aspect of my constituent service. Being able to help is an important part of what I enjoy about being your representative.


While the Judiciary Committee, and especially Rep. Newton, has done good work, the debate will likely turn on how we balance the important privacy aspect, with the need to open the workings of government to cleansing and appropriate scrutiny. My best guess at this point is there will be a general distinction between constituent communication with their legislator and communications between different parts of government or different levels of government. Like I said—a delicate balance.


We are in hiatus for a couple of weeks from the statehouse, which gives me time to catch up with my constituent service. It also gives me time to survey the local business scene and see how the general uptick in economic activity is playing out locally. I’m proud to relate that Ted and Donna Huffman, owners of Bluffton Barbecue and purveyors of world class, down-home food and drink, are expanding their business. They have taken over the Cripple Crab in Hardeeville, and you can expect to find the same quality of food and service there as they offer at their flagship location in the Promenade in Old Town Bluffton.


Also, if you have not tried Fiddlehead Pizza in Bluffton, you need to get one of their pies. They are excellent. With locally sourced ingredients, Darren and his crew at Fiddlehead put out a superior product in an atmosphere that is all Bluffton.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

As promised, what follows is a survey of the highlights of budget week. I apologize for not returning emails as promptly as I usually do, but we were on the floor for 12 to 14 hours each day this week. I will begin to whittle down the communication backlog as soon as I recover a bit.


Starting with the good news: We have made the first step toward true per-student parity for our local college branch, USCB. In a concerted effort, our budget contains provision for our local students to be supported on a par with each of the other branches of the system. No one could make a case for why our local students were less worthy of support than at other branches. While I was happy to lead the charge, much credit goes to my Ways and Means colleagues, our united delegation, and especially to the persistent efforts of USCB Chancellor, Dr. Jane Upshaw, and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Lynn McGee.


While redistricting has placed the Waddell Mariculture Center in the district of my friend and colleague, Rep. Weston Newton, for many years it was a special project of mine. They do such great work with so few resources, but they had essentially come to the end of their creativity in keeping up the facility and still managing to accomplish their day-to-day mission. Al Stokes and his dedicated crew now have an appropriation in our budget for doing long deferred maintenance, in addition to the modest yearly line-item that forms the basis of their operational funding.


While I will continue to have a role in the protection and possible expansion of Waddell, rest assured that Rep. Newton has long history and appreciation for the work of these good folks, and will give them his utmost attention.


The big fight this week was over Obamacare. I have heard from you loud and clear on this, as have the majority of my legislative compatriots. You have expressed an unwillingness to abdicate responsibility for the health care of your state to the federal government. The raw numbers are simply astounding. Our budget is something in the neighborhood of $6.3 billion. The proposed expansion of Medicaid would grow our budget by $12 billion. You didn’t want it, we didn’t want it, and it won’t happen.


My friends across the aisle had heard pretty much the same thing from their constituents as we had heard from ours, so they proposed a compromise where we give it a try for a few years and see what happens. This was an idea that was soundly and definitively rejected. President Reagan once said “Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life that we well see on this earth.”


We will provide health care for those who are needy. I, and some colleagues on Health and Human Services Committee, proposed an alternative to the expansion of Medicaid where we provide funding for hospitals to steer the uninsured away from their emergency rooms, when used for non-emergency care. They will be treated at free clinics, such as Volunteers in Medicine on Hilton Head and Bluffton. We will also provide substantial dollars to the state’s twenty federally qualified health clinics to treat more patients. We have allocated sufficient funding to allow this combination of care providers to make certain no one is untreated, but without the extravagant costs associated with emergency rooms and similar settings.


In short, the House budget grew by 2.68%, which is within the “population plus inflation” benchmark. This will adequately fund the state government, while expanding health care access across the state, especially for children, the elderly, and pregnant women.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, we finished up all the preliminaries to budget week, which will involve four fifteen-hour days beginning Tuesday of next week. This is the time when all the work in committee and subcommittee pays off. It is also the time when the carefully crafted coalitions and issue groups get to compete for inclusion in the final iteration of the House budget. It is also when experience and knowledge of the system really comes into play, especially for those of us who are conversant in the arcane particulars of the House rules and traditions.


Your delegation has strongly supported the equity funding for USCB and the other branches of the USC system. If we can hold it through to the House floor, my good friend Senator Tom Davis will shepherd it through the Senate side. This is one of our highest priorities and we will be vigilant and aggressive in its protection. Although the dollars currently in the budget represent only the beginning of true per-student parity, it is a good start and we will follow up in subsequent sessions until each student in the Beaufort County post-secondary regime will receive state support commensurate with every other student in the state.


We are also making the case for the Beaufort County and Sumter County Development Alliance. This is critical to allow both counties’ economic development efforts to move forward. There is some resistance to our rationale that both Beaufort and Sumter are military communities, with similar strengths and opportunities for businesses to locate in our areas. While we are not geographically contiguous, our similarities are a compelling argument for the approval of this development alliance.


What is in play here is the somewhat paradoxical situation of members trying to protect the interests and advantages of their home counties, regions or industries, while still holding the overall interests of the state paramount. There is a dynamic balance that may find our delegation in support of another delegation on a particular issue but opposed on others. Again, the importance of personal relationships and productive history comes into the matter.


Fortunately, there is one area of general agreement on the revenue side that will send an extra $80 million to the Department of Transportation for road maintenance. We voted 106-5 to dedicate the proceeds from the sales tax on vehicles to DOT. While the dollars in question seem like a substantial sum, in the context of our overall transportation deficits, which are something in the neighborhood of $30 billion, it is a drop in a very large bucket.


We expect that next week will see a large number of visitors from the home front up in Columbia for the budget finale. Last week, we had the Greater Island Committee from the Hilton Head, Bluffton and Sun City areas, which is always a good social time where a good bit of business also happens to transpire. One of those Greater Island Committee members in attendance was my long-time friend Joe Fragale, from Sun City. Joe, as many of you know, serves on the Human Affairs Commission, and does outstanding work in that regard. He is also known as a common-sense Republican who can always be counted on to help out when a phone bank needs organizing, or when volunteers need to be briefed, or any chore that just has to be done right. Joe is usually more action than talk, but when he does have something to say, this representative pays close attention.


Next week, there will be budget play-by-play and good local news.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was another busy week in Columbia. We had several people from Bluffton/Beaufort come up to visit. President Tom Leitzel of the Technical College of the Lowcountry, along with his chairman of the TCL Commission, General Art Brown, were in town for a technical college meeting. We had a good conversation about their needs at the college, as well as some of their initiatives in moving residents into good jobs through the excellent training they offer. A case in point, they are having a series of open houses around the county beginning with a Health Sciences event on Thursday, March 14, from 5-7 at the New River Campus in Bluffton. For more information call 843-525-8267 or go to www.tcl.edu. These folks are one of the economic development linchpins for our area.


I also had a great visit with Rose Newton, the lovely wife of Rep. Weston Newton. Rose was in town with the Bankers Association. It is always impressive how Rose can run their Myrtle Island home, keep all those young’uns shiny clean and on time to all their events, as well as be a banking executive and corporate representative, not to mention keeping Rep. Newton on his toes.


The people got their money’s worth from us this week. We got a lot done. One of those things was to correct the process that led to the election debacle where hundreds of candidates were removed from the ballots in 2012 election, essentially on a technicality. Aside from some confusing language in the rules, one of the underlying problems was that papers were filed with local parties, rather than county election commissions, which tend to be more consistently up to date on election law. Now, candidates can get filing forms on the web and file with the election commission and statements of economic interest are filed under our Ethics Law. Our local parties were pretty good with all this but there was some ambiguity in the process that has now been cleared up.


One final change to the bi-partisan bill was made that turns back the efforts of some party leaders to nominate more candidates by convention rather than by primary. In my view, this is wise in that we want to give the voters the absolute maximum chance to weigh potential candidates, rather than leave it to a small group of party activists. We had 623,000 South Carolinians vote in our 2010 party primaries. As much as I respect our party leaders, I trust the judgment of our primary voters, even though our primary system is imperfect.


Finally, your representative was elected this year’s chairman of the Jasper County legislative delegation at a very well attended meeting last Monday in the Hardeeville City Council chambers. I was joined by Rep. Weston Newton, Rep. Bill Bowers, Sen. Tom Davis and Sen. Clementa Pinckney in what turned out to be a lively and interesting meeting. We took care of some procedural and housekeeping business, then opened the floor for public comment.


There was an interesting exchange between a representative of the school district and a member of the school board concerning the honoring of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that was in dispute. The discussion seemed to turn on some points of definition, which was not within the scope of our meeting, so we moved on. Interestingly, Rep Weston Newton has emerged as a leading voice on Judiciary Committee in their efforts to rework the FOIA to avoid just such disputes. When those efforts are complete, let’s hope that tighter definitions and clearer procedures lead to more transparency and less argument.