Wednesday, March 26, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Former Bluffton Mayor Hank Johnston may be best remembered for his speech of many years ago when he laid out the four primary goals of the Town of Bluffton: “Protect the river; protect the river; protect the river; and protect the Old Town.” Times and standards continue to change, but the mandate to “protect the river” is as current as ever. To that end, last week I had a good meeting with folks from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). It was somewhere between a status report and a list of potential projects under consideration for “our river.” We managed to direct a substantial appropriation in the House budget to the care and management of this important estuarine environment.


Part of my investigative oversight was to have a good conversation with Larry and Tina Toomer concerning what needs to happen in order for the May River, along its entire run, to be returned to a pristine standard. For all my years in the statehouse, Larry and Tina have been my “go to” folks when it came to the real story of the May River. These good people know more than anyone else when it comes to what is working, or at least has potential, when caring for this estuary. As long as they are optimistic, then so am I.


In a related but less positive note, the dolphin population of our coastal area seems to remain under threat from the morbillivirus, which killed, or contributed to the deaths of over a hundred of these lovely animals in our coastal waters last year. So far this year, there have been 27 reported strandings of bottlenose dolphins along the South Carolina coast, including one on a Hilton Head beach, and another found in the May River near Bluffton. As we reported in this space last year, please do not touch the stricken dolphins, or try to help. Instead, please call the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 800-922-5431.


I received a number of calls about the ongoing investigations in Jasper County relating to the much-maligned school district. We reported some of the drama, which occurred at our Jasper Delegation meetings, where citizens wished to be heard regarding their concerns and how the school board did not seem open to those concerns. As chairman of the delegation, I was careful to note that we had no formal role in the official duties of elected officials in the community. We did, however, provide a venue for the airing of those grievances.


I have several calls in to both the FBI and the IRS concerning the investigation. There is a group wishing to set up a hotline to advise folks who are intimidated or reluctant to speak with authorities concerning what they may have personally experienced regarding either the school district or board. I must hold off on any recommendation until we hear back from the investigating authorities. I am personally distressed by this matter, in that there are many good people in Jasper County who have the very best intentions with regard to public education. They should not all be tarred with the same broad brush.


Finally, Mary and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Hilton Head Island patriarch, Joe Fraser. While somewhat less celebrated than his brother Charles Fraser, Joe was nonetheless an integral part of the transformational development of Sea Pines, and this whole part of coastal South Carolina. The Fraser brothers, along with their cadre of brilliant young acolytes, inspired a generation of planners and developers, including yours truly, with the vision of nature-based development, and the profound effect it can have, if done with consummate care and professional sensitivity.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was quite a week at the statehouse for this legislator and your hard working delegation. With work on the House budget on short final approach, your team was in the thick of it. We managed to get out a fair, well crafted, and coherent budget in near record time. If it sounds like I am pleased with our efforts, well, good work is simply good work.


Much of the credit goes to our outstanding Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Brian White from Anderson County, as well as to the various subcommittee chairmen, including yours truly. We agreed early on to a plan and a schedule, and didn’t allow the inevitable distractions to impede deliberations.


For those of you interested in the particulars, I have a copy of the General Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2014-2015 and the Capital Reserve Fund Bill, H.4702, at my office in the Promenade. If you wish to view the details of what was done with your money, how it was done, what was spent, and what was saved, please come by and check these documents out for a day and bring them back. Last year, we had them out every day for three months.


Every year when we finish up the budget process, I usually have a few things that I think we could have done a little better. Maybe we could have saved a little more, appropriated more for this agency or less for that agency. This year, it seems to me that we got it about right, especially since we got it all done without a tax increase.


Twelve years ago, I realized that in our part of the Lowcountry, the tide, as far as taxes were concerned, always seemed to be going out. Our dollars were flowing to Columbia with not that much service or infrastructure to show for us. I asked you to send me to the statehouse to see what we could do to get a little balance in the system, to help the tide flow a little more in our direction. You not only sent me to Columbia as your representative, but you educated and encouraged me, hollered at me, baked me cakes for Christmas, and altogether showed me how to be your fiscally conservative, get-it-done, no excuses, representative.


As I look at this budget, it is plain that the tide now runs both ways. Our schools are benefiting from a revised Education Finance Act (EFA) formula, USCB and Technical College of the Lowcountry are now funded commensurate with their contributions to our community. There are dollars for the May River Water Quality efforts. The Waddell Mariculture Center is starting to look like the world-class research station it has always been, with renovation funding on the way. Our roads and bridges, essential services like the Rape Crisis Center, C-Funds, and a host of items are now being funded at frugal but reasonable levels. At the risk of sounding like one of those folks on Facebook showing off a new puppy, please come by and check out these budget documents. If you are like me and really want to dig into it, come by and check out on a Friday and return on Monday. Like a new puppy, it is a thing of beauty.


As if all that was not enough, my good friend Donna Huffman is back from a stay at MUSC and is doing well. Donna, as most of you know, is the founder of the Bluffton Breeze magazine, as well as the lovely wife of my neighbor and pal, Ted Huffman, Mayor Pro Tem of the Town of Bluffton. Mary and I are so grateful for the good outcome to a scary episode.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Regular readers of this column know that I consider the most important function of your legislature to be the preparation and passage of the budget for our state. To that end, we get a good idea of what our revenues will be-- compare that with our spending priorities—debate the various drafts of the budget so as to get implicit agreement from the taxpayers—and finally pass our spending plan. It goes almost without saying that the budget is the most comprehensive statement of what we truly care about and what we want our state government to accomplish.


It is always a little puzzling to this legislator to listen to the endless speeches and rhetoric from the members, extolling one political philosophy over another, or some set of priorities as superior to another, because it rarely gives an accurate reading of what we, as a body, truly believe or think. Read the budget, however, and it all comes into focus in brilliant high definition. If you are one of those folks, like me, who care about the particulars of these matters, please go to this rather long link and take a look: http://www.scstatehouse.gov/committeeinfo/Ways&MeansMeetingHandouts.php. It’s all there
For those of us on Ways and Means, the process began late last year in subcommittee, as we took testimony to make certain that we were still in good agreement on our priorities, and that the needs of the various departments were in line with those priorities. At one time, late last fall, there was an estimate of a little over $400 million in “new” money, as a consequence of an improving economy reflected in higher tax revenues. Unfortunately, there was also more than a billion dollars in agency requests, most seeking to be made whole after years of reductions. Believe me, there are very few easy decisions in that part of the process.


Two weeks ago, Ways and Means Committee approved a $23.9 billion budget, $6.9 billion being total state appropriations. The discrepancy between the two numbers is due to federal “pass through” dollars for school districts, or “other funds” such as tuition payments that are paid by parents directly to state colleges, etc.


You should note that the budget is balanced, and it observes the proposed “inflation plus population growth” budget cap that the House has passed many times.


While certainly not exhaustive, here are a few of the notable spending items that will likely be of interest: $6.5 million to continue providing ID Theft monitoring to those affected by the 2012 security breach at the Department of Revenue; $23 million to provide a 1.5% raise for state employees (in my view, should have been at least twice that but done on merit); $57 million increase in state health insurance that will fund the entire premium increase, with a minor co-pay increase. We also have a fully funded Reserve Fund, as is constitutionally mandated. The “Base Student Cost” increased to $2120. This includes a new Education Finance Act (EFA) formula to direct more funding to lower income students and those needing specialized instruction. There is $17.7 million in new funding for charter schools as well as $12 million for new school buses. We have also funded new officers for SLED, the Highway Patrol, and Department of Natural Resources (DNR). We have also fully funded the state’s college scholarship funds, and added $4 million to promote efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability for our colleges.


Obviously, this is a small sample of the hundreds of budget items, with a complete listing at the abovementioned link.


Debate on the budget began Monday, March 10th at 1 p.m. You can watch the debate live at www.statehouse.gov.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

After huge budget deliberations last week, it is clear to even the most casual observer that our portion of the Lowcountry is finally being recognized as a valuable contributor to our state’s prosperity. Sometimes it just takes awhile for some of our Upstate colleagues to process the change, although the reality has long been evident and the documentation voluminous.


Your delegation not only seems to have been designed to distribute the available talent to cover the most important issues of the day, we have an advantage that is the envy of every other delegation in the statehouse. That advantage is, of course, you. The level of citizen participation within our districts is so far above the statewide norm, it is a constant source of amazement among all our colleagues, who feel comparatively neglected by those they represent.


The most recent of our visiting groups was the Greater Island Committee, from Hilton Head Island. These community leaders are an outstanding resource as they include most of the chairs of the local and regional civic and political organizations, as well as thoughtful and engaged retirees from all areas of business, the military and the public sector. You can be certain that when the Greater Island Committee is up for a visit, your delegation is there to receive them with the respect and appreciation they deserve.


My only disappointment from last week’s visit was the absence of GIC stalwart Ken George, who had pressing family business back on Hilton Head. Ken has been a trusted and important advisor and friend to not only this legislator and members of our delegation, but also to a number of key state leaders. His ability to accurately measure public sentiment on almost any issue, as well as to create effective tools to move or mobilize that sentiment is approaching legendary status.


One of the most gratifying outcomes of the budget deliberations was our ability to properly fund the renovation needs of the Waddell Mariculture Center in Greater Bluffton. You may remember last year, we provided $930,000 in critical maintenance support for Waddell, only to see it disappear in Conference Committee, as the House and Senate versions of the budget were reconciled. Rep. Weston Newton and I were vocal in our displeasure at the time, and have continued to make the case for these dollars and for the mission of the Waddell Center as well. In conjunction with our efforts, there was a huge outcry from our local business and environmental communities over this obvious shortsightedness. My friend Collins Doughtie wrote several angry but persuasive columns in support of Waddell. My friend Dave Harter, Head of the Hilton Head Sportfishing Club, wrote a number of very good letters to the editors of the local and state papers pointing to the economic impact of the work done by Al Stokes and his cadre of scientists at Waddell to support the water quality and the fish populations of the Lowcountry estuarine systems. Even the real estate folks contributed a strong lobbying effort, as water quality is a large part of making our property values as strong as they are.


Needless to say, the Waddell renovation dollars are in the House budget, as is the line-item appropriation for operations. With reapportionment, Waddell is no longer in District 118, but my friend and colleague, Rep. Weston Newton, of District 120, is more than passing familiar with the great work being done at Waddell. I have every confidence that Weston will do what is necessary to protect this “jewel of the Lowcountry.”


From time to time, both Weston and I will offer updates on the happenings at Waddell. I urge you to visit the site at the end of Sawmill Creek Road, introduce yourself to Al, and take the tour. You will be impressed.