Wednesday, February 26, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was good to be back to the statehouse after our latest furlough. There are a couple of reasons why I like the periodic, planned weeks off from session. The first is that we save the taxpayers around $50,000 each time we are off for a week. The second reason is that for those legislators still in the work force, such as this representative, it is an opportunity to get a little of our private work done so we can remain among the ranks of taxpayers ourselves.


My discussion last week in this space regarding the progress of the Article Five process did not generate the kind of comment I expected. Maybe it seemed like old news, or something happening “out there.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a serious matter with the potential to break us out of our national political dysfunction.


My thinking is this: Assuming we get to the prescribed number of states signing on to the Article Five process, the news media will go absolutely nuts. After they get over decrying the revolutionary nature of the development, they will likely become the civics class so many of us did not have in high school. Since most of these channels have a need for content 24/7, they will trot out every constitutional scholar on the planet to get their take, or their version of the history of all the related constitutional amendments. The public education alone will be worth the price of admission.


With the federal system so effectively broken, I believe a good dose “letting the folks have a crack at it” will have a salutary effect on our national politics. If we manage to get an amendment up for ratification, mandating, say, a balanced federal budget, with appropriate exceptions for national emergencies, it would be, in my view, a very good thing. Even if it didn’t pass, the debate would wake up the career politicians to the fact that we are paying attention. I would not be surprised if at least a quarter of congress resigned before their next election. I do know that all the “bridges to nowhere,” all the budgeted weapons systems not wanted by the Pentagon, and many of the other procurement boondoggles would disappear within an election cycle or two. Folks, it’s time to stir the pot a little.


Now that I got that rant out of my system, I want to tell you about some long-delayed reforms that we are hoping to make regarding our penal system. Our prisons have the distinction of being the only state function more neglected than our transportation system.
In hearings before my Ways and Means Subcommittee, Health and Human Services, we are trying to find a way to bring a more effective integration of mental health services into our prisons. The testimony we have heard concerning inmates with obvious and serious mental issues in the general prison population is very concerning. Not only are there safety and legal issues, there are also the moral issues. If the state is going to lock folks up, we are obligated to take care of them. It is a large and complex issue that begins with whether our prisons are about punishment or rehabilitation, or a little of both? Are there ways to punish or rehabilitate non-violent offenders without locking them up? Honestly, the thing got so dysfunctional because prisons are hideously expensive and people just don’t want to think about them beyond locking criminals up. Unfortunately, we have to reform, and maybe even rethink, this system, or the courts will do it for us.
Next week, the promised mid-session summary.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week was a weird one, even for South Carolina. Not only did we get this season’s second portion of snow and ice, we experienced an earthquake. I spent the second planned furlough week on the “left coast.” There were some business matters that needed attention, as well as a good opportunity to visit with my son Cole, who is attending school in California. Needless to say, the weather snarled the airline schedules and left me to improvise a way home.


I’d like to revisit an item I put before you three months ago, as well as give you an update on how the item is playing around the nation. I’m speaking; of course, of the Article Five process that describes the various ways given in the U.S. Constitution by which that document can be amended. You may remember that the common manner of amendment, except for the Bill of Rights, is for both houses of congress to pass a joint resolution by a supermajority of at least two thirds of both chambers. The amendment is then placed before the state legislatures for ratification. When three fourths of the legislatures pass the measure, it becomes an amendment to our foundational document, the Constitution.


The Article Five Convention of States (COS) process is an alternate method for amendment. It involves the legislatures of at least two thirds of the states requesting of congress that a national constitutional convention be held for the purpose of drafting and passing an amendment to the Constitution. Ratification is either by passage of three fourths of state legislatures or three fourths of state ratifying conventions. Such an effort has been under way for almost a year.


When the idea was floated in this column last December, a solid majority of your emails and phone calls supported the idea, especially for an amendment to require a balanced federal budget, except in times of national emergency. Many of you also had concerns that such a process might be hijacked by extremist groups. As the COS process picks up steam around the country, those same concerns are becoming a part of the conversation. For example, a Tennessee Senate Committee approved the “Faithful Delegate” bill last week on a unanimous bipartisan vote. The bill limits the authority of delegates to an Article Five Convention to the scope of the state’s Article Five Resolution. Any deviation from the resolution results in the replacement of the delegate.


Our neighbors in Georgia recently approved the Senate version of the COS bill unanimously. The Florida Senate Judiciary Committee passed that state’s Article Five COS application 7-2. It now moves to the full Florida Senate. In Arizona, the House Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility Committee passed COS legislation 5-3.


This movement is quickly picking up steam and when we reach the 34 state threshold, we are in for a very interesting constitutional exercise.


Locally, the CODA Run4Love walk/race, as expected, was a big success. Despite 30 knots of breeze and cool temperature, the turnout was high, and from all reports, big fun was had by all. I had hoped attend, but my transportation arrangements to get home from California turned nightmarish. Congratulations to all our friends from Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse (CODA). Not only do they do excellent work in the community, they also put on a great event. For the race results, go to their Facebook page.


Next week, assuming we don’t experience another weather event, I will give you a mid-point summary of our activity at the statehouse. Candidly, with two planned furloughs and another week off for weather, we have a little catching up to do.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was good to be back to work after our unscheduled week off for the bad weather. I heard a small bit of grumbling about the closings of offices and schools around the state because of the storm. In my view, these decisions need to err on the side of public safety. We very well could have had folks put at risk of much more than inconvenience, especially when you consider what happened in Atlanta and Birmingham. As University of South Carolina Professor Christopher Emich told ABC Columbia “An ounce of preparedness is worth a pound of response.”


A particularly impressive event last week was a performance by the New Thespians of Beaufort, presenting the new anti-bullying play they have done in the Beaufort County School District. The play was very well done and was attended by a healthy contingent of legislators, as well as the governor. This legislator was proud that once again, Beaufort County was recognized for an innovative and creative step toward a solution to an increasingly serious problem.


Also, with the Municipal Association meeting in town, I was pleased to see a lot of the home folks from both Beaufort and Jasper counties. Bluffton Town Council was represented by my friends, Mayor Lisa Sulka, Councilwoman Karen Lavery, Councilman Larry Toomer, and his lovely wife, Tina. I also had a good conversation with Bluffton Town Manager, Anthony Barrett and his lovely wife, Angelina. Beaufort Mayor, Billy Keyserling and Port Royal Mayor, Sam Murray were in attendance, as were Port Royal Town Manager, Van Willis, and Hilton Head Town Manager, Steve Riley.


We enjoyed some excellent fellowship but also had good, substantive discussions on a variety of topics ranging from education to roads and bridges, and how we should both prioritize and fund what we absolutely have to do.


Friends, most of us, at some time during our education, studied our federalist system, that is, how the different levels of government are assigned particular responsibilities and provide service to overlapping constituencies. It is a brilliant way to organize government so that local public servants hand local problems and regional officials handle larger issues, and on up the chain. As an experienced state elected official, I can tell you for a fact, that the system works only as well as the communication up and down the chain allows. What we hear from the municipalities and the counties weighs very heavily in our deliberations, as does what we hear from our Senators and Congressmen. To a large degree, the quality of our governance is determined by the quality of the communication up and down the levels of government. Last week, our meetings with the municipal officials were an example of how federalism is supposed to work.


Finally, I have been beating the drum for the Race4Love Run/Walk, a fundraiser for Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse (CODA), taking place in Beaufort on February 15th, the day after Valentine’s Day. These good people provide free services to those affected by domestic abuse in our four county area. In recognition and support of that good work, the sheriffs in each of those four counties have volunteered to see the runners and walkers off on race day. Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner, Jasper County Sheriff Gregory Jenkins, Colleton County Sheriff R.A. Strickland, and Hampton County Sheriff T.C Smalls will all offer pre-race remarks to, what we think, will be a huge group of runners and walkers. The race begins at 9 a.m. Saturday morning. To sign up, go to www.race4love.com. The cost is $25 for runners and $20 for walkers, but if you want to make a more generous donation, the CODA folks and their clients will be grateful.