Wednesday, June 25, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, we returned to Columbia to finish some outstanding issues, as well as deal with the governor’s vetoes. The delegation worked hard to make certain the veto of the critical renovation dollars for the Waddell Mariculture Center in Greater Bluffton was decisively overridden. Al Stokes and his crew can bring the research station physical plant back up to code so that the scientists, as well as visitors, will not have the roof cave in on them.

Another of the vetoes I voted to override was the bill to increase the in-district funding for members to take care of constituent service and voter information in their home districts. However, if you read the newspaper accounts of this matter, it was characterized as a pay increase for legislators that made its way into the budget through the back door. In fact, I got a few phone calls from folks who were curious how a frugal conservative, such as your legislator, could vote for such a bill. Considering the impression left in the minds of many by the press coverage, I’d like to speak to this issue.

The vote was essentially to accept or not accept an increase to the in-district funding. My preference would have been for the funding to be available for those who might need it. Those of us who were inclined, could take the funding and donate it to charity, or send it back to the general fund. With our new Bluffton/Jasper Volunteers in Medicine and Bluffton Self Help always in need, my plan was to split the dollars between them. In my view, such a plan would benefit more local folks than returning the dollars to the general fund.

Part of my thinking was that we could pragmatically place a few strategic dollars in the non-profit sector while also protecting the integrity of the institution of public service. To take a local example, your legislator, Rep. Newton and Sen. Davis cover two counties. Our districts have essentially doubled since my first election. That means that costs to do constituent service, to speak at many, many local and regional functions, and to get the real, accurate information out to the voters, have all pretty much doubled. While Mary and I have come out of the Great Recession intact from a business perspective, many of my legislative colleagues have not been so fortunate. They either continue to take a loss on their in-district efforts at constituent service and transparency, or they are looking at leaving elective office.

In truth, for the dozen or so years of my public service, there has been a strong trend toward less wealthy folks leaving office, to be replaced by those of greater means. This is not just in our statehouse, but even more so at the national level.
We in South Carolina are supposed to be “citizen/legislators.” We are paid $11,500 a year for working 3 days a week for 6 months a year. More accurately, especially for those of us in leadership, we work at least 4 and a half days a week for 12 months.

I believe we all benefit when a larger portion of the economic spectrum is represented by our decision makers. If we structure our legislative bodies so that only elites are making the decisions, we are limiting ourselves to office holders who may have little knowledge of, or empathy with, the concerns of the average voter. We are also excluding many younger folks who may not have had the time to acquire the means to afford involvement in public service.

It is my strongly held opinion that an in-district funding increase will not reverse the trend, but it may allow us to maintain at least a modicum of economic diversity among our decision makers.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

My intention for this week was to talk about the good work accomplished by your delegation in the last session, as well as some of the wins for Beaufort and Jasper counties in the budget. Unfortunately, events seem to have taken over my plans, and in response, the good work and the local wins will wait another week or two.

The tragic cluster of traffic accidents on Highway 278 last week, along with the deaths and injuries, resulted in a ton of calls to my office. In turn, I spoke with the folks at the South Carolina Highway Patrol and asked for more of a presence in the area. I am certain that both Bluffton Police and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department are making every effort to keep traffic under control, but this time of year, that is a very tall order, made ever more difficult with the road construction and the high seasonal flow of vehicles to our beautiful part of the Lowcountry.

The horrific accidents also served to reinforce my disappointment with the number of dollars in the budget this year to help repair our crumbling roads and bridges. In Beaufort County, we not only raise much of our own funds to repair and expand our transportation infrastructure, your delegation has had remarkable success in adding to those dollars with increased funding from state and federal sources. Last year, we funneled more than $1 billion into road repair. While the estimated cost to bring our system up to “acceptable” is reliably estimated at $29 billion, I thought we made a pretty aggressive start. This year did little to build on that good start. The House appropriated a portion of state auto sales tax to roads and bridges, which would have produced at least $41 million. While not a massive investment relative to our need, it was, nonetheless, a continuation of our momentum in this area.

Unfortunately, as the budget moved to the Senate, the $41 million was reduced to $15 million, a large sum in absolute terms but paltry in road building terms.

Fixing our roads must be a top priority for the next legislative session, and I know my friend, Senator Tom Davis, agrees. It is unfortunate that the majority of Senator Davis’ colleagues cannot or will not understand that it is critical for the safety of our folks in South Carolina to have adequate and well-maintained roads and bridges. It is also critical for job creation, as well as for the millions of visitors who want to contribute to our local economies. Our regional competitors are far ahead of us in this forward-looking enterprise.

Finally, my biggest disappointment of the session was the governor’s veto of the $1.1 million appropriation for the renovation of the physical plant of the Waddell Mariculture Center in Greater Bluffton. Those of you who follow this column know that the Waddell Center is the scientific engine that powers much of a billion dollar industry in our state. My friend Al Stokes and his crew do world class research on water quality and those things that are important to those who make their living fishing, or catering to fishermen and all those things that are involved with fishing, including boats, tackle, lodging, food, even real estate.

Our governor likes to tout the creation of jobs and prosperity. Why then would she veto crucial funding for an installation doing exactly that? Perhaps the optics of flying an entourage to Europe to chat with industry officials are superior to driving to Bluffton, having a great sandwich at the Sippin Cow, and visiting a productive state facility that is already supporting a huge number of jobs. I’m simply at a loss on this one.

You can be sure your legislator and your delegation are working the phones, calling in favors, and doing what needs to be done to overturn this irresponsible veto.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The last week of session always seems to be a slugfest, and this year was no exception. Important matters go right down to the wire with each side of any dispute believing the other side will blink, especially on budgetary issues. This time, the news is overwhelmingly good for our beautiful part of the Lowcountry. In future columns, I will discuss details of what was funded, why it’s important, and how we managed to get it done for you.

For the last twelve years, my overarching goal has been to return a larger share of what we send to Columbia back to our area. These dollars support our local education, our natural resources, especially the May River and related estuarine systems, Waddell Mariculture Center and the great work they do, as well as roads and bridges that safely carry our residents and our visitors. This repatriation of local tax dollars has become more efficient as our delegation has become more experienced and more senior. My seat on House Ways and Means and Senator Tom Davis’ seat on Senate Finance certainly give us a leg up in this extremely competitive process. Also, knowing the rules and the process by which things are accomplished gives your Beaufort County delegation an impact well beyond what our raw population numbers would imply.

One of the things that came out of this latest session is, in my view, a greater inclination among South Carolina lawmakers to experiment with different technologies, some very old and some as new as today’s headlines. An example of the former is a law passed by the House 72 to 28 to allow farmers in our state to grow and sell industrial hemp. Although this plant is related to marijuana, it is not remotely psychoactive. It was grown in colonial times because it made strong fibers for cloth and rope. More recently, it has been used as a cheaper and more sustainable pulp source for paper, and a host of other products. Ten years ago, it would have been laughable to introduce such a bill in the South Carolina General Assembly, much less to expect a conservative governor to sign it.

In a related matter, we produced a bill, which the governor signed, that allows for research and certain medical uses of cannabis oil to treat a virulent form of epilepsy. Academic medical centers in our state are also authorized to conduct clinical trials to investigate the value of this non-psychoactive oil in the treatment of this heartrending malady.

Another experimental technology, approved and signed into law, has to do with a type of plastic wall, known as wave dissipation systems. These structures have shown great promise in fighting beach erosion, on ocean and river beaches. The wave dissipation systems are reusable and may present a more effective and immensely more cost effect way of dealing with erosion problems on our beaches.

Finally, I want to place something before you, and ask for your thoughts and your stories. After a number of conversations with my colleagues in the Republican Caucus, I am pretty sure there will be a number of medical marijuana bills submitted for the next session. As you may imagine, the House Republican Caucus is not a bunch of wild-eyed radicals. We are, however, folks who have confronted the grim specter of cancer in our families, or ourselves. I predict that next session, medical marijuana will be an issue of some seriousness. My brother Tommy succumbed to cancer very recently, so this is something personal for me. As always, when there are issues likely to stir up emotions, I always put them before you, the folks, for your wisdom and opinion. Please share your thoughts and stories with me. If your stories are not for attribution, just say so. Your thoughts will be submitted as evidence in subcommittee and committee, with the idea of perhaps using this natural substance to ameliorate the side effects of chemotherapy. I know you won’t disappoint.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I don’t know if it is by design, but the end of session also seems to coincide with graduation and the end of school for the summer. With that in mind, please be extra careful on the roads. There are more young folks on bikes, driving the family car, or walking on our pathways. Please be attentive, as they are sometimes so excited with a couple of months of freedom that they are thinking of other things rather than safety on the roads, or alertness on the pathways.

Speaking of schools, the House finally gave its approval to a bill requiring a reconsideration of the National Common Core Standard for Student Assessment: aka Common Core. We sent the bill to the governor for signing and I am confident she will make it the law in our state. We are not the first state to withdraw from the Common Core standards, with Indiana and several other states in the process. With passage of our bill, the state is also committed to put in place a new, more appropriate set of academic standards for the 2015-16 school year.

With only a few days left in session, the texting and driving ban is still far from passage. The House, acting on the almost unanimous advice of the law enforcement community, has passed a bill banning texting while driving. Good studies indicate that texting while driving is at least as reckless, relative to accidents and deaths, as drunk driving. Most of us see instances every day of drivers trying to type out messages on their phones while driving. At best, it makes for erratic behavior and poor driving performance. It also causes a ton of accidents.

The Senate version of the bill only bans this dangerous behavior among young, inexperienced drivers. While senators mandate harsher penalties, they also excuse older drivers from any sanctions on this dangerous behavior. The only way this observer can understand the discrepancy between the House and Senate versions is to think of it in terms of prerogative. Despite the manifest danger of texting while driving, the Senate feels it is their sole prerogative to recognize the danger and enact a suitable remedy. This representative must respectfully disagree.

If for no other reason, the fact that at least 25 local and county jurisdictions have created ordinances to control the matter, simply requires the state to address this activity in the name of both uniformity and public safety.

Finally, I want to express my gratitude that we have such a good group of productive and congenial public servants in our district. Bluffton Mayor Sulka and I speak on a regular basis. My friend Tabor Vaux is doing such a great job on Beaufort County Council, especially in the environmental and water quality areas. Also, my friend Jerry Stewart and I share a passion for the complex and difficult work of economic development. County Councilman Stewart is always looking around the bend for the next potential job-producing strategy where the county can help to open the door for good, high paying jobs for local workers. Nobody bats 1000, but we have to keep swinging.