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.