Wednesday, December 31, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

On this last day of 2014, I am pleased to share with you, my last column of the year. This is also the 624th iteration appearing in this space over the past 12 years. During that time, I have tried to provide some insight into the legislative process we undertake each year, beginning officially on the second Tuesday of January.

The most important thing we do is prepare and execute a spending plan. It is important, in my view, for constituents to understand how much we spend and how much we put aside. The budget is a pretty clear statement of what we think is important. The column goes a long way in telling you why it’s important.

Another thing I like to do with the column is to spotlight certain issues either locally, or statewide, that need attention. We have rallied support to protect Pinckney Point, for example, from unwise development. We organized public meetings with the proper regulatory agencies to draw attention to the issues that made its development unwise. Years later, I used the column to encourage popular support that prompted Beaufort County to finally purchase Pinckney Point using their highly regarded Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program.

I have deep trust, that given the basic facts and a coherent rationale, the electorate and their representatives at all levels will do the wise, just, and productive thing, nearly every time. Whether it is a matter of discouraging the legislature from allowing our state to become the nuclear waste dump for the world, or encouraging our Jasper County constituents to demand positive change to their education system, the column has been a valuable tool.

That said, having a megaphone for my views is far from the most important feature of the column. Of exponentially more value, is the fact that this column is the beginning of a weekly conversation with you, the informed and engaged electorate. Each Wednesday, usually around noon or so, I start to receive comments, suggestions, requests for further information, and sometimes criticism or occasionally, outraged criticism. There are always at least 10 emails or calls, with a maximum of around 300-350 responses, with an average of 30-50 well-reasoned, articulate contributions.

For this representative, to be able to consistently tap the information, experience and wisdom of our extraordinary community is valuable almost beyond measure. To take the most conservative, low-ball estimate of serious weekly comments, say 30, and multiply by 624 columns, we get a big number. That big number is not only a weekly sample of community concerns, it also is powerful evidence for support when we are putting together the budget.

To take a very simple example: When the entry to Sun City from Highway 278 became a dangerous intersection, then-Beaufort County Councilwoman Margaret Griffin brought me in immediately. When the next budget supplement was being researched and debated in committee, I could put 500 coherent, articulate, constituent emails on the desk of each member in the room. It was a strong piece of evidence that the state and the county needed to address the matter. It took far longer for Margaret and me to coordinate the response between the jurisdictions than to make the decision.

The upcoming session will likely be focused largely on ethics and transportation infrastructure. As I start to report the different measures working through committee, I will get a volume and quality of commentary that will effectively drive a big portion of the deliberation.

The weekly conversation that started over twelve years ago has allowed us, for many years, to punch above our weight. Now that we, as a region and a delegation, are legitimate heavyweights, I’m confident you will see a stronger return on our tax investments, and more of our conservative, Lowcountry values reflected statewide. Let’s keep talking.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

As this is Christmas Eve, I’m going to limit the politics and weigh in a little more on the gratitude side of the ledger. I did get quite a number of good emails on the last couple of columns regarding committee and subcommittee assignments, and what they might mean for the upcoming session.

I try to give enough of the structure of the legislature and the flow of work so that if you want to follow a particular item that might be of special interest to you or your business, you will know who needs a call or a letter. There is always a concern that I will lose my audience with too much “inside baseball,” but history and context are so vital to understanding how the people’s business is conducted. It is a delicate balance. It is very gratifying when I get positive feedback from you, especially if I’m worried that I may have gone overboard with details.

There is a follow up to an item from last week’s column. I mentioned that my pal, Weston Newton had been asked by Speaker Lucas to sit on the newly created Legislative Oversight Committee. In their organizational meeting last week, Rep. Newton was elected chairman of this important body. Legislative Oversight Committee is tasked with programmatic review of all state agencies, with full investigative and subpoena powers. There are over 200 agencies and the job is expected to take seven years.

On the local front, the Town of Bluffton did an outstanding job of removing and replacing the dying tree in the center of the Tom Herbkersman pocket park in the southeast corner of the Promenade. Bluffton Manager, Marc Orlando has certainly hit the ground running, if this is an example of his administration. They diagnosed the situation early so that falling branches hurt no one. Bids were let and processed for the work without delay. The proper notices were issued, and the whole thing came off without a hitch. Thank you, friends. Excellent job.

A few weeks ago in this space, I suggested that local businesses hire students on break from school to work over the holiday. In fact, I hired my son, Cole and his friend Caleb. They have done good work and collected a couple of paychecks, as well as gotten some valuable experience. I think it is pretty good idea and am happy with the outcome.

However, since the column came out, I have gotten quite a few phone calls and visits, not too many emails, from folks who told me about their holiday and temporary jobs when they were growing up. The stories were mostly from older fellows, a couple from Depression times. Some were inspirational, some were pretty sad, about folks making the best of what they had. The thing is, work is such a powerful thing, whether we realize it at the time or not. Even a small job, or a temporary job, is often so much more than just a paycheck.

Finally, I want to say a few things about supporting and appreciating our community. When you do business with your neighbors instead of multinational big box stores, those dollars stay in your community. There are so many towns that no longer have a downtown, or even much of an identity, because shoppers would rather save a nickel than support their community. Local banks didn’t gamble with your savings and crash the economy. Please think and shop local. We have one of the best places imaginable to call home—in large part because we support one another with our business.

Have a merry Christmas. Be safe, and remember that designated driver. (I’m a dad, can’t help it.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I gave you a preliminary report on the pre-session and a few of the committee assignments of members of our delegation. It is truly a big deal that both Rep. Shannon Erickson and I are members of Ways and Means Committee. Our primary job is writing the budget, the spending and investment plan for our state’s foreseeable future.

I doubt seriously if Beaufort County will ever again be anything but a donor county, as far as receiving in services and infrastructure value close to what we contribute in taxes. We are, in truth, a relatively wealthy area, and there is merit in lending a hand to those communities less blessed than ours. However, there was a time when we were taxed in an outrageously disproportionate fashion, with almost no recourse. The reason was because our population was small and our delegation, even with some seniority, couldn’t compete with the population centers. Much of that has changed and we are well positioned to contribute our fair share, but also to receive a more realistic return on our investments with the state.

My subcommittee assignment on Ways and Means is Parks, Recreation and Tourism. This is the culmination of several years of effort on my part, and of legislative allies who are familiar with my skills and inclinations.

Our part of the Lowcountry is home to one of the finest resorts in the world at Palmetto Bluff. They are consistently rated in the top five in the country and top ten on the planet. Bluffton and Beaufort are both travel magazine favorites, recognized as funky, off-the-beaten-path little towns to either visit or places to retire. Our natural assets, arts and cultural attractions, and great weather could all use more of a megaphone. “Parks, Recreation, and Tourism” is a large part of what we are about. It gives us a great quality of life, as well as supports a ton of jobs in various forms of the hospitality industry.

The most successful of our state parks, year in and year out, Hunting Island State Park, also supports many of our less visited parks. Hunting Island needs a little help with its beaches from time to time. We now have a seat at that table. I guess you could say I’m pleased with my assignment.

If you read Rep. Weston Newton’s Sunday column in this space, you know that he is also moving up the ranks. He was returned to Judiciary Committee, but also was assigned to the prestigious Constitutional Laws Subcommittee, along with Judiciary chairman Rep. Greg Dellaney, and House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Bannister.

Weston was also asked by Speaker Jay Lucas to serve on the newly created Legislative Oversight Committee. This important body will do a programmatic analysis of each agency of the state over the next seven years. Not only are we proud that Weston is one of ours, but those of who know this hard-working sophomore lawmaker are confident that his efforts will not only make our state government more efficient, but also more transparent and more accountable to the taxpayers.

It is a week before Christmas. In the spirit of giving and in profound gratitude for all we have been given, let me suggest this: Join Mary and I in support of two of our fine local charities. Send a check to either or both: Bluffton Self Help, Donations Dept. Box 2420, Bluffton, SC 29910; and/or Bluffton--Jasper County Volunteers in Medicine, Box 2653, Bluffton, SC 29910.

Think of it as a birthday present in the name of the fellow who told us to “love thy neighbor.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Organizational session for the General Assembly started this week and once again, our lovely portion of the Lowcountry has advanced toward the front of the legislative pack. One of my reasons in running for state office many years ago was to try and bring Beaufort County out of the political wilderness. We paid taxes in such disproportion to our meager influence; we were something of a piggy bank for the upper parts of the state.

Those days, thankfully, are long in the past. With the appointment of our delegation colleague, Rep. Shannon Erickson, to Ways and Means Committee, we now have two members, including this legislator, seated among the folks who prioritize our state’s spending and investment.

Originally, Ways and Means was organized to potentially have one member from each of the 46 counties. Over the years, as tax receipts gradually increased from the coastal counties and receded from many of the inland areas, more coastal members populated this all-important committee. With Shannon’s appointment, I believe each coastal county, including Beaufort County, now has two seats on Ways and Means. We will not fail to properly appreciate this enhanced responsibility.

Also, our colleague Rep. Weston Newton has been returned to Judiciary Committee, after distinguishing himself by his contribution to their work product in his first full, two-year session. His administrative experience as the ten-plus year chairman of Beaufort County Council was expected to give him valuable insight into how state legislation plays out at the local level, and he did not disappoint.

In fact, without stealing Weston’s thunder, there is a new, important committee being formed, on which Rep. Newton will sit. The purpose and powers of the new committee, I will leave for Weston to articulate. Suffice to say the leadership, myself included, has great expectations for the sophomore lawmaker from District 120.

Another member making a good impression is Rep. Jeff Bradley, recently elected to represent Hilton Head Island and District 123. Jeff and his vivacious wife Anne were among the more popular folks during the social portions of the orientation process. With Jeff’s solid civic portfolio, and his skills in finance, I would be surprised if he is not appointed to Education Committee. He has good ideas on how we can reform our public education system so that South Carolina young people leave high school not only with a diploma, or its equivalent, but also have a clear pathway to training and education and a place in the 21st century workforce.

On another pleasant note, my good friend Joanie Heyward was at the statehouse for a visit this week. If towns had ambassadors, Joanie would certainly hold that office in Bluffton. She not only can tell our story better than anyone, she also, through her many civic contributions, makes the story a lot more interesting and attractive.

Finally, it is my privilege to be able to adjourn the first day of session in honor of Ms. Jenny Bedenbaugh, the recently deceased mother of our friend, Lisa Sulka. Our heartfelt condolences go out to Mayor Sulka and her family. South Carolina is not made up of only smiling faces and beautiful places, but also some really good, decent people. Lisa’s mom was one of the best.

Once again, the holidays are here, with kids out of school and on the streets and pathways. Please watch out for them. For those older kids who will be attending parties and socializing with friends, please have the talk about the designated driver and playing it safe with alcohol. It is just what good parents do.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The Thanksgiving holiday at the Herbkersman household was, as much as possible, about family and a celebration of gratitude. We have adult children who have new lives starting alarmingly soon, and older parents who are dealing with the challenges that we all eventually will face. Holidays for us are times to focus on the present and enjoy our blessings to the absolute fullest. Memories of absent loved ones make the enjoyment of family and friends all the sweeter.

Strolling around Old Town Bluffton last weekend began with a commitment to walk off some of my excess celebration, but as often happens, it turned into a bit of market research. Old business habits run deep with me. As I made the rounds from the Promenade, meandering down to the Church of the Cross, by way of the Oyster Factory, I was a little taken aback by all the folks, and especially by all the business being done. I stopped to chat with a few shoppers who didn’t look familiar, thinking they might be from out of town. Some were, but several were in the process of becoming our neighbors.

Out-of-towners and newcomers alike were just enchanted with our place. They liked the way we have kept the nature intact, how we have preserved our history, and most of all, how people in the shops, galleries and restaurants all seem eager to chat. I am becoming more convinced that our friendliness and conversational bent just puts us over the top as far as visitors are concerned. Home folks kind of take it for granted. It really is a special feature.

And speaking of restaurants, many of you have commented on the changes in the Promenade, one of which is that Moon Mi is now the Mulberry Street Pizzeria. We had a number of good conversations with the Mulberry Street partners before we decided to make the change. We had built a strong business at Moon Mi, with a loyal customer base, thanks to the good work of former manager Charlie Wetmore. However, Joe Sullivan, Mulberry chef and partner, made a very good case that his product and style would enhance the overall dining offering in the Promenade, especially with the opening of the new Bluffton Room, and some of the other potential additions we are considering. We also liked the fact that it was one family group selling to another family group. Just seemed like a Bluffton thing to do.

One of the benefits of having two competing chambers of commerce in Bluffton, seems to be that they both are trying to raise their game. One example is that the HHI/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has hired a small business specialist, Hannah Horne, who is coordinating the chamber’s Shop Small campaign in our area. They have partnered with American Express and chosen four small businesses in Bluffton to spotlight with website videos and print coverage. Those businesses are: Babbie Guscio’s The Store, Jacob Preston Pottery, Chica’s in the Promenade, and Spartina 449.

Finally, I want to make a suggestion to all the business folks. Most of us can use a little extra help during the holidays, so it just makes sense to hire a college student home for the break, and hire one high school student, even if it’s just someone to sweep up and take out the trash. Not only will it make your life a little easier, with maybe a little more family time, it may well make the economics of those you temporarily hire a whole lot better. We have always tried to hire young folks over the holidays and have found that they are good workers and they also remember the opportunity you offered. I promise you they get more out of it than a few paychecks. It’s a small investment that can pay big dividends.