Wednesday, May 22, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

My trip to Washington was productive but a little exhausting. I had good conversations with folks that we will need on our team when the infrastructure push starts in earnest in a year or so. Also, it is necessary to make sure one’s relationships up and down the food chain are attended to. I try to be up on what the counties and municipalities are working on as well as seeing how things are holding up at the federal level. Roads and bridges are not only an absolute necessity for us in South Carolina, but are a huge concern across the nation. It may also provide our best opportunity to return to some level of bipartisan productivity in the foreseeable future.

We had a good group of visitors up at the statehouse after the furlough. My good friend, Joe Fragale, a member of the SC Human Rights Commission, was in for a visit. I know I probably talk about Joe too much, but he is such a good example of an engaged, informed citizen who really makes a difference. Joe is a good conservative Republican, but you always know his thinking is about good governance, not hyper-partisanship.

We also had the Sun City Government Affairs Committee, including a couple of neighborhood representatives, up for a day. This is a group of very active, knowledgeable residents who represent 18,000 or so of your neighbors in Greater Bluffton. You may remember back when we were getting started with the golf cart legislation, and there were some folks in the Senate who were sitting on the bill for reasons that were none too persuasive. It was the Sun City Government Affairs Committee and a crowd of folks from Daufuskie who wrote letters, make calls and paid courtesy visits to the lawmakers in question. It was an effective operation that has almost passed into legend around Columbia. It’s one of those things that I bring up only when it’s important. Don’t want to play that ace too often.

Having said that, we may have to deal the cards again if we don’t get some movement on this archaic law, proscribing games and alcohol in the same place. It is just not right for a small group of Upstate Representatives and Senators to impose these silly moral strictures on folks who don’t follow their particular brand of morality. It is even more egregious as these are the same moralists that are always carping about getting the government off their backs, when they seem to have no problem in having that same government enforcing long out-of-date laws on people engaged in innocent entertainments. Playing checkers and having a beer is not a threat to the republic.

This may seem like a trivial waste of time, but to me it’s a big deal to give up even a small amount of personal freedom to appease and indulge the silliness of these self-appointed arbiters of the state’s morality. If I am on the wrong track, please send me an email and explain the error in my thinking.

Every year as the session winds down, we in the Beaufort/Jasper Delegation have to maintain high vigilance as to what comes over from the Senate. There are always unpleasant surprises, and this year seems to be no exception. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fund has been bled, and the carefully structured Waddell renovation funding is in jeopardy.

Incidentally, if you are curious why the Waddell Center is in the column so often, please call my friend Al Stokes and arrange a tour of the facility. You will then probably be curious why we don’t talk about it more often.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

As usual, I am grateful for all the calls and emails about last week’s column. The overwhelming majority of the comments were positive, with many folks wanting to add their own take as to why Bluffton has evolved into the vibrant little town it has become. There were a few of the usual suspects who cannot seem to help themselves and complain and focus on the negative. They are well within their rights to do so and I appreciate the fact that they make the effort, although I feel kind of bad for folks who seem to have difficulty in seeing the good because they are focused exclusively on the not-so-good.

We are fortunate that so many of our District 118 people are a little older and more experienced. They may have lived in areas where things were done differently, oftentimes more efficiently, and I am thankful they are willing to share that knowledge. The very best complaints are those that define a problem and then offer possible solutions to the problem. Much of what we have done regarding the enhanced utilization of golf carts started with some Sun City folks “just trying to make things better.” Positive complaining gets results, negative—not so much.

One of the things we have been getting calls on is the situation with games and liquor. As weird as it may seem, if you play games in your home, be it mahjong, rummy, tile, monopoly, or whatever, and you have a drink, you are technically in violation of SC law. There is also a situation where if your church or social club or civic group wants to have a raffle to raise funds for even a very good cause, at this moment, it is illegal. We have passed a measure to place on the ballot in the next general election, a change to the SC constitution to allow non-profits a certain number of raffles or gaming type fundraisers per year.

The problem is there is a cultural distinction between the coastal areas of our state and large parts of the upstate when it comes to any kind of games or any kind of alcohol. There is an upstate contingent that is reflexively opposed to any games, be it checkers or old maid, and any kind of alcohol, regardless of circumstance. From an electoral standpoint, the population in the upstate is more concentrated and the legislative calculus is always complex and frustrating. We are slowly chipping away at the 19th century, but it is a tough job.

We were on furlough last week, but my time off was spent in Washington, D.C., looking for road dollars and hoping to repatriate some of the tourism dollars we send to our federal friends. I had good conversations with my old friend from Laurens County, Congressman Jeff Duncan, as well as my friend from the SC House, the new Senator Tim Scott. They were helpful and sympathetic. We all come from business backgrounds and recognize the fact that I-95 and parts of I-26 are literally falling apart, hurting our business prospects in so many ways, not to mention making our visitors run the gauntlet to get to our pristine beaches and excellent resorts.

I have broached the infrastructure issue in this space a number of times in preparation for the big push next session. Roads and bridges in our state have become a choke point restraining our economic future. There has to be some federal participation, but the bulk of the burden is going to fall on you and me. If we don’t address this issue with mature seriousness, and soon, we will continue to fall behind our regional competitors, with consequences that will make all our other challenges pale by comparison.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I was given a needed reminder of why I find myself in the House of Representatives, and why some of my friends are serving as town and county council members, mayors, senators, and even elected POA board members. It was a needed reminder because public service is hard and seems to be getting harder. After all, elected service is extremely time consuming and not very remunerative. Most of us absorb a huge financial hit when we take care of the people’s business, often to the detriment of our own.

If you watch TV or listen to the radio, it seems as though our society is becoming more and more fractured, with those ideas and ideals we hold in common subject to increasing scrutiny and question. If you are a consumer of the 24-hour news cycle, it appears that our commonality is breaking down-- the center no longer holds.

Last week, I didn’t write much about the May River clean up, but I thought about it a lot. It was the reminder that I needed as to why I essentially donate a quarter of my work year to the General Assembly. Why Mayor Sulka and her town council put in countless hours on town business. It was why my pal Tabor Vaux just ran a hard, expensive campaign to win a seat on County Council so he can spend thirty hours a week doing the people’s business for a tiny fraction of his lawyerly billing.
Friends, it was also the reason 200 of our neighbors showed up last Saturday to clean up the May River. They wanted to be part of something whose purpose was to simply make things better. They wanted to be a part of cleaning up that which we all hold in common. They were cub scouts and members of the Sun City Kayak Club, families and church groups, every race and religion, all across the economic spectrum. They were supported by a dozen or more businesses donating supplies, food and good coffee. They were what make a town into a community.

After a great day on and around the river, Mary and I got cleaned up and went for a little dinner down on Calhoun St. Some of the first folks we ran into were our good friends Dr. Brian Smith and his lovely wife, Amy. We had a nice chat and all agreed that Bluffton had finally come into its own. The Old Town had become what we knew it should be, and would someday be. Well, it looks like someday is today.
We had a fine meal and strolled about for an hour or so, speaking with friends and with folks who were visiting from out of town. They were, without exception, deeply impressed and delighted with our little corner of the Lowcountry. I imagine we will have another influx of new residents pretty soon.

Without waxing too philosophical, I think we are experiencing something of a virtuous cycle, where a certain number of people just feel the need to “just make things better.” They may help clean up the river, or coach youth sports, or arrange the flowers at church, create good art, or even be a part of the political structure. They just want to make things better. There is a positive momentum that seems to build on itself. We see new neighbors, new businesses, and a welcome sense of optimism and possibility.

This Saturday is the 35th iteration of the Bluffton Village Festival. My Bluffton Rotary is now the careful custodian of Miss Babbie Guscio’s splendid vision. If you want to see what a great community looks like as it celebrates itself, join us this Saturday. If you have an ugly dog, bring it. He or she might become a celebrity.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to thank all of you who called or emailed with comments on last week’s column. There were a fair number of comments on the Ethics Bill, which I will speak to shortly. Also, our common sense measure to try and keep firearms out of the hands of folks who have been deemed by a judge to be mentally unstable was a little more controversial than I would have imagined. Unfortunately, at this time, most conversations involving the Second Amendment seem to produce more heat than light. As always, I appreciate your thoughts.

Last week, we also struck a modest blow for governmental efficiency in approving the Department of Administration Restructuring Bill. This was pretty much the same bill passed by the House last year that eliminates the Budget and Control Board and moves those duties under the governor. We have a number of duplicative services that are eliminated by this long sought after reform. There is almost no resistance to this effort outside the statehouse. Let’s hope this is the year.

Ways and Means once again passed the Angel Investors Bill. This will, if passed, expand tax credits for angel investors who place capital in smaller enterprises with explosive growth potential. It targets the credits to particular investments such as biotech and IT. For me, it is another power tool in our economic development toolbox.

Twenty years ago, our ethics laws were some of the most stringent and effective in the nation. Today, our entire ethics regime is antiquated and ineffective. This was going to be the year we got in, did the hard work, and produced an ethics framework to support and maintain the clean political landscape South Carolinians have said they wanted. We did put in a great deal of time on the matter. Judiciary Committee did solid work, but the bill we currently have, after all the horse-trading and compromises, is a disappointment to this legislator. The bill, in my view, is watered down, and does not adequately reflect either the work, which went into its construction, or the goals it aimed to accomplish. With the enforcement feature lacking seriousness, among other shortcomings, I will have difficulty supporting the bill, as written. The amount of money currently washing over the political landscape is mind-boggling. The portals through which these dollars enter the system are numerous and largely opaque and more are proliferating every day. A half loaf may be better than nothing, but this bill is barely a slice.

Returning to the home front, thanks to all who came out for the May River Clean Up and the following festivities. As always, Kim Jones and her crew from the Town of Bluffton did a great job, as did the folks from Experience Green. Also, thanks to the Carson Cottages for the venue after the clean up. The May River is the one thing in Bluffton about which everyone is in agreement: It is a treasure.

Finally, Mary and I heard the news of the passing of our friend Nancy Roe, with profound sadness. Nancy and her husband Bill have been our good friends for many years and were very active both on the social and the political scene locally and throughout the southeast. Nancy always carried herself with dignity and class; she will be missed.

As the session winds down, I will keep you up to date on what has passed, what has become law, and what it all may mean.