Wednesday, July 31, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

We have experienced a major uptick in activity at the office the last few weeks. One of the areas having the biggest increase is the number of applications for Notary Public. We usually have 10 or 15 a week, but the numbers have been up around 60 for the last several weeks. My speculation is that this is connected to the revival in the real estate sector.

The processing of Notary applications is one of the legacy functions of the delegation, dating to the time before home rule when many of the functions of local government were handled by the legislative delegation. We take the applications, along with the $25 filing fee, verify the information through a fairly complicated but thorough inspection, then pass them along to the office of the Secretary of State. Over my years as head of the delegation, we have worked out a very efficient system to place the verified applications with the Secretary of State with a minimum of delay and a maximum of accuracy. Our delegation office has a stellar reputation with not only constituents, but also the state offices with whom they routinely communicate.

At this writing, we are still planning a meeting with both Beaufort and Jasper County delegations, along with the governing board of the Academy of Career Excellence (ACE), with an eye toward its governance and funding, and possibly to take a look at the direction in which this institution might need to proceed.

In older times, ACE would have been known as a trade school. It is where young people, for the most part, go to learn a trade. While there is still some validity to that definition, the fact is that most trades are now so technical, much of what is taught at ACE is highly technical, bearing no resemblance to trade schools as they used to be. When we can finally get our meeting organized, I will give you an update on how this valuable job-filling resource is progressing.

Turning to Bluffton events and business, we are experiencing a surge in building in the Promenade. The new Moon Mi Pizza is hitting stride with a good number of regular customers. Wells and his crew are turning out some serious pies for folks who know what pizza should be about. Within a week or two we will have whole grain and gluten-free pizza doughs, as well as some new, very creative chicken dishes.

With the addition of the upscale dress shop Chica’s and Danielle’s fabulous Salon Karma to the Promenade family, weddings and showers are becoming a big part of the local offering. This is complemented by the fact that the mysterious Midnight Baker is finally permanent in the upper section of the neighborhood.

Finally, I want to say a few words about a fairly new business in Bluffton over in Bluffton Village. It is the Village Pasta Shoppe, owned and operated by Connie Rockwell. Connie does a great business in frozen pastas, breads, and specialty Italian spices and condiments. Some of her Sun City customers asked about some low salt versions of her great products. Connie got with her suppliers and came up with no-added-salt ingredients for sauces and toppings, which she adjusted to maintain proper taste and balance. Get on her email list, and when a batch of the low-salt fare is available, get yours.

Friends, I am a businessman, not an economist. That said, these business stories illustrate how the market responds to demand. In Bluffton, we take time to chat with our customers. We listen to what they want and how they want it. A good conversation with a potential customer is worth a hundred market surveys. In Bluffton, we prove it every day.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

I continue to get a lot of calls from our friends over in Sun City regarding the gambling legislation. I am happy to report that this representative is working on the matter, with the able and necessary collaboration of Chief Keel of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the Attorney General’s office, Senator Tom Davis and Representative Weston Newton. The substance of our work is a set of definitions that allow the type of harmless social activity we have been asked to allow, while not opening the door, even a crack, to admit the proponents of pernicious “video poker” type activity.

If we are to judge by a recent editorial in a local newspaper, a bill to allow ladies at the country club to have a glass of wine while playing Canasta, Hearts or even Go fish would somehow be a pathway for the clever legal minds of the industrial gambling complex to reinstate the dreaded video poker. I have even gotten two emails agreeing that the danger is just too great to chance it. We must endure what all agree is silliness in order to protect ourselves from this horrific specter.

By contrast, we have received, in total, several hundred calls, emails and notes stating that silliness is silliness and they want it to stop.

My take on this is that we can, in concert with the exceptional minds referenced above, come up with a good bill, with proper definitions, to allow card or dice games to coexist with alcohol in appropriate settings, without irrational fear that the world will end. It is an issue, in my view, of freedom. Playing the video gambling card, while rhetorically effective, should not justify 19th century mores, and law, for 21st century citizens.

Continuing in matters of interest to Sun City, My pal Weston Newton and I were guests of Tom Favor in the studio of Sun City Television. We did a two-part series answering questions on the first half of the 2013-2014 legislative session. We got to visit with my friend Marty Caprillian, as well as enjoy the famous Sun City hospitality. I hope you will make an effort to catch the programs as they give you some interesting insight into what happened this go-round in Columbia and what you can expect when we reconvene in January of 2014.

Another interesting insight that you might glean is how your two statehouse representatives embody different, yet complementary styles of law-making. I tend to be interested in the broad strokes of government, how we balance the needs of the commonality with the freedoms of the individual. My friend Weston Newton has a somewhat different perspective, probably because he has, for the last ten years, been intimately involved in the particulars of building roads, the details of environmental protection, and unfortunately, making the best of some of the less than stellar lawmaking that has come down from Columbia. As an attorney, he reads every word of every bill, and is the person who knows exactly where the devil is in the details of any bill.

As you know, predictions in the political business are rarely a good idea. But I predicted that Weston was the missing piece to our delegation and he has proven to be exactly that. I am not the only one impressed by Weston Newton. He makes your delegation stronger, more effective, and more likely to support legislation that is well constructed, and less likely to contain unintended features. It is the perfect complement to my experience, seniority, and positioning.

Next week, I want to return to local issues, as well as make a few comments on the job producing aspects of the Beaufort Jasper Academy for Career Excellence.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

Thanks to all who called or emailed comments, questions and suggestions on last week’s column. I am always gratified that so many folks out there are paying attention to what’s happening in our state and to the thoughts and information I share with you every week in this space. We have evolved a good working partnership that is greatly benefiting the residents of District 118.

I had several questions from people interested in possibly running for office. I am always excited by the prospect of having more folks involved in the political process, and running for elective office is the highest form of that involvement. That said, I would urge those with the desire to become involved to first volunteer for one of the many boards and commissions in need of serious and committed participants. Whether on the municipal, county, or state level, there are always a number of openings for those wishing to serve. Not only will you get valuable experience in the mechanics of government, your efforts will fill the important gap between professional staff and the elected decision-makers. For town boards, call the Town Secretary at the Town of Bluffton or Town of Hardeeville. For openings at Beaufort County or Jasper County, call the office of County Secretary. And for state openings, call my office at 757-7900. It may be the most important call you make this year.

The reason several of you wanted to talk about elective office was the debacle we experienced last time around when hundreds of qualified candidates were removed from the ballot. While anger is a legitimate reason to run for office, in my view, a better reason might be simply a willingness to serve your community. Also, no amount of anger will get you through a five-hour budget meeting.

Running on a platform of electoral reform might also be a little late in that early in the current session, we amended the process to eliminate the sources of miscommunication and ambiguity that were the cause of the unfortunate ballot removals. To that end, current law mandates that all the necessary filings and attestations and payment of necessary fees be done at specified government offices. The role of the parties is no longer required. In addition, statements of economic interest are no longer under election law, but are the province of ethics law, which is appropriate.

One of the big issues we are likely to face as we reconvene in January will be our glaring deficits in transportation infrastructure. Our roads and bridges have been neglected for so long, they have become an impediment to the pace of economic development, not to mention a source of potential peril to those who drive on those roads and bridges. Although our long-term infrastructure liability has been estimated at just shy of $30 billion, we managed to make a small down payment this session. It is also, in my view, a gesture of good faith and the seriousness with which we regard this problem.

We allocated $150 million toward transportation and infrastructure improvements--$100 million recurring and $50 million non-recurring. The House eliminated all the fees and taxes, both state and local, that were proposed by the Senate Finance Committee. The Department of Transportation (DOT) will use $50 million recurring General Funds to replace the supplemental funds that can be instead directed to the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) to bond $500 million for bridge and interstate projects. We have also directed half of the state sales tax on cars, some $83 million, to the maintenance and repair of secondary roads.

Relative to the very large $29 billion bucket, it’s only a drop, but it is a good beginning.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

The 4th of July holiday in Bluffton was, as always, spectacular in every way. The river and sandbar were filled with boaters and mostly well-behaved folks whose boats flew more than a few celebratory flags. The weather was what we expect, with a hit or miss showers here and there. The prevailing attitude was gratitude for living in the greatest country on the planet, as well as being fortunate enough to have found our little jewel of the Lowcountry. Life is good.

The office was a bit crazy with the number of constituent contacts soaring well about the 275 or so average weekly calls and emails we usually receive. The vetoes accounted for a lot of the calls, as did the necessity to explain the whole matter of DHEC and the Certificate of Need Program. We have a somewhat older population in District 118, and there is a lot of interest in how our health care is to be delivered. I will have some comments on the CON program as its trajectory becomes clearer.

There was also a lot of interest in the early voting legislation. We have created a program where you can vote up to nine days before the election, excluding Sundays. Each county must establish one early voting center, which is supervised by Election Commission employees and located in a public building in the county seat or another centrally located place. This legislation requires that the election be conducted on one of the following days: second Tuesday in March; second Tuesday in June; second Tuesday in September; or the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Also, fusion voting is no longer allowed. That means you cannot be on the ticket for more than one party.

Although the Senate did not pass ethics reform, I think it is important to know that the House put in a great deal of good work on this important issue, and passed a strong bill which will be the starting point as we reconvene in January. It is important to know that your delegation was in the leadership on this, with my colleague and friend, Rep. Weston Newton emerging as the voice of common sense on Judiciary Committee.

Another forward-looking feature of the last session was our directing $83 million of automobile sales tax revenue to the Department of Transportation, in a good faith effort to begin the long haul of bringing our state’s roads and bridges up to a good standard by addressing long-deferred maintenance. Those dollars from this pot now directed to the Education Improvement Act (EIA) mandate are not affected.

While I don’t usually get a lot of calls from younger folks, this week was something of an exception. There is a lot of interest from young people now that we have passed a measure where you are allowed to show proof of insurance on a mobile device, not unlike showing a boarding pass at the airport on your I-phone or other mobile device. State government is rarely on the cutting edge of new technology, but in this area, we are making some progress. This is one of my reasons for encouraging younger people to become a part of the political process. While many of us have learned to be semi-competent in the newer technologies, younger folks have grown up with these devices just being a regular part of life. The enormous data hack at the Department of Revenue was a kind of rude awakening to the necessity of taking these things seriously.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

This last week was a tough veto session at the statehouse. We saved what we could and really did pretty well. Probably the strongest up side was that folks who were paying attention to our local legislative issues got a pretty good idea of what we are confronting in terms of the governor and her often indecipherable motives for her vetoes. On the one hand, we are supposed to be about economic development and job creation, and on the other, we get consistent vetoes on a stellar state asset like the Waddell Center.

Even those who don’t follow these things too closely are aware of what Waddell does and the hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars worth of economic activity it supports. This is discounting the quality of life issues residing in the water quality research done by these hard-working state employees. I love my state and am a strong believer in our political process, but sometimes I am simply at a loss to explain how we seem to want to serve certain political abstractions at the detriment to those things that actually work for us. When I placed the line-item veto of the Waddell operations dollars before the House, we overrode the veto by the largest margin of any of the overrides. Senator Tom Davis did his part in the Senate and Waddell is still in business and Al Stokes and his crew will carry on their mission.

With the current dollars in hand, we are going to begin repairs at Waddell. We are going to make it safe, bring the electrical up to code, fix the ponds, fix the roofs, and make absolutely certain that none of our employees or visitors are put at risk by the fact of a thirty-year-old facility, starved of maintenance dollars, is an imperfect work environment. Rep. Newton and I have pledged that we will secure the appropriate renovation funding when we reconvene in January.

My thanks to the many of you, including Jimmy McIntire, Dave Harter, head of the HHI Sportfishing Club, Collins Doughtie, columnist, and all the others who called and emailed to help my legislative colleagues understand the extent of local support for this productive installation of the SC Department of Natural Resources.

The budget process was somewhat kinder to the parity funding for USCB. Although we are still somewhat below complete parity with other USC students around the state, the efforts of Chancellor Jane Upshaw, Vice Chancellor Lynn McGee, and USC President Harris Pastides, made a huge impression on the General Assembly. We will resume this good work on the second Tuesday of January.

We will carry over a few bills of local concern to the second part of our two-year session. The golf cart bill will be passed next time. It makes sense for Sun City and for our neighbors on Daufuskie Island and for all those around the state in similar circumstances. The reform of the gaming statutes will continue as we make our laws congruent with other forward-looking states that see little harm in playing cribbage or dominoes while drinking a glass of wine.

On a more serious note, our failure to enact meaningful ethics reform was a huge disappointment--same for the failure to reform the FOIA regime. The good news here is that my colleague and friend, Rep. Weston Newton has emerged as the voice of responsibility with regard to these matters on Judiciary Committee. His commonsense contribution to the process will ensure that when ethics reform does pass, it will be real reform, not simply optical change.