Wednesday, March 11, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I gave you some background as to how our oceanfront management laws and regulations have evolved over the years. There were various “Blue Ribbon” committees appointed with mandates to protect our beaches as well as try and balance the property rights of adjacent landowners with the rights of public access. There have been multiple committees, each updating the management regime with an eye on future needs.

The most recent committee was appointed in October of 2011 and called the Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management. It was chaired by Blufftonian, Wes Jones, with this legislator also a member. Our charge was to develop specific statutory and regulatory recommendations from the research and policy options presented by our predecessor committee, the Shoreline Change Advisory Committee.

Our work product was presented to the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) board in January 2013. I have submitted legislation, H.3378, The Public Beach Protection Act, which includes most of the important provisions of our report. The bill has attracted a number of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, and will come up for debate week after next. There is also a companion bill on the Senate side, S.139, sponsored by Senator Ray Clary.

There are a number of technical features of the bill, but the most important tenet is to declare that the “baseline” established under the S.C. Beachfront Management Act should never move seaward from the position it occupied on 14 June 2011. The baseline is the line, which is currently set every 8 to 10 years according to various dynamic measurements. Building setbacks are relative to the baseline. If the beach appears to move seaward, then there is potential to move the setback lines seaward, and vice versa. When the baseline moves seaward, so do setbacks, and so do buildings. Our bill will allow the baseline to move landward, but not seaward. The science and the common sense agree that this is the prudent course of action. Here’s why:

Much of the coastline along the eastern seaboard is composed of barrier islands whose geography is in constant flux. Some years, a particular stretch of beach will expand, maybe for 10 years or more. That same beach may begin to shrink, and continue to do so for years, perhaps even opening into a small estuary and forming a marshland, only to be reversed eventually. Even discounting the effects of climate change and ocean rise, this is a demonstrable process. If we move the baseline seaward to account for a temporary event, when that event reverses, any buildings that were built during the previous years are in jeopardy. Property owners then want permission to build protective structures, even though we know that these structures increase erosion on neighboring properties.

The legislation we have put forth is likely to become model law for North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, if not the entire coastline. That is, if we can pass it in South Carolina. In years past, we were the leaders in innovative coastal land management. We’ll see in a couple of weeks if we still hold any claims on that leadership.

If you have any doubts as to the fact that barrier islands are constantly moving, go to Hilton Head Museum at Honey Horn and look at maps going back to World War Two. There were gun emplacements hundreds of yards off what is now the beach at Palmetto Dunes. In 1945, that land was high ground. Also, oyster rakes on the mud bars between Fish Haul Creek and Dolphin Head are actually tabby foundations of homes that were once 300 yards from Port Royal Sound.

We’ve worked on this for well over 20 years, it’s time to get it done, and done right.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week was a marathon at the statehouse. As a member of leadership, I arrive early and stay late, but there were just not sufficient hours to get it all done. That said, we did hit it a pretty good lick.

The situation involving South Carolina State University (SCSU) continues to unfold. The more we learn about this institution, the more concerned I have become. I hope we are beyond the blame casting stage. In truth, there is more than enough blame to go around. There is currently a measure being considered that would remove the current board and the current president, and appoint the Budget and Control Board as an interim board, which would appoint interim executive leadership.

This legislator is certainly aware that SCSU is our last remaining historically black state university. Also the lamentable events of 1968, on and around the Orangeburg campus of SCSU, lend a vivid chapter to our ongoing efforts to provide quality educational opportunity to all our citizens. On this, we still have a ways to go. Even so, it is our task as a governing body, to hold to account any element of state government, which fails to perform its role in a fiscally prudent manner.

In my view, there needs to be a clear picture of where and how the SCSU finances began to falter, and a plan to fix it. If it was simply a failure to accurately project enrollment, so be it. Is there now a credible plan to boost enrollment? If there was, as has been suggested, legislative inattention, let’s define and address it. If the problem is that the necessity for historically black schools is no longer what it was, I believe that too, is worthy of reasonable discussion.

The SCSU situation is complex and will take some time to sort out. By contrast, the situation at Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) is one of almost undiluted success, and success when we really needed some good economic news.

During the dark days of the Great Recession, I fought hard to provide PRT with adequate funding to continue their mission. The reason was that the return on investment for tourism and visitor marketing dollars is phenomenal. The visitor economy is one of our largest and most important industries. It also filters down into all areas of our economy, from hourly banquet workers to commissions of realtors as they seek to convert visitors to homeowners and local taxpayers.

Now, as the economy has gotten back on track, and we face huge deficiencies in our transportation infrastructure, there is some enthusiasm for paring back our investments in PRT. As Ways and Means PRT Subcommittee chairman, my thinking is entirely different. Most of us were visitors before we became residents. Most of us business owners had businesses somewhere else before we came to South Carolina. Events like the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing, the steeplechases at Camden, even the upcoming half-marathon at Palmetto Bluff, offer a ton of opportunities to show off our state and our people. You’d be surprised at the number of businesses with 50 to 200 employees, whether manufacturing, or PR shops, or even engineering firms, that are looking for a reason to leave the bad weather and high taxes of some of our northern states, and find our business paradise of good weather, low taxes, and plentiful year-round amenities. Sometimes, a week’s vacation at Hilton Head/Bluffton or Charleston/Kiawah leads to more than great memories and sunset photos.

Next week: I have filed legislation to give the force of law to the recommendations of last year’s South Carolina Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Change. This is important.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

We had another busy week at the statehouse, particularly regarding financial matters that come under the oversight of Ways and Means Committee. You may have heard about the extensive, largely unanticipated debt situation at South Carolina State. There have been some unsettling developments at this Orangeburg institution, but the full extent was brought to light in Ways and Means, as well as Proviso Subcommittee, my former chairmanship posting.

We have lots of questions that currently are without good answers. There are apparently audits that perhaps need auditing. The federal government has done audits on the grant money it has awarded to South Carolina State. Unfortunately, those documents are not available to us, for reasons that have yet to be articulated.

At this point, my concerns are two-fold: that the financial situation becomes clarified to the point where we can begin to seek some resolution, and secondly, that the students enrolled at the school are not left in the lurch.

Much of the activity and focus in this session has to do with transportation infrastructure—what we must do, and how are we going to pay for it. It is a problem of gigantic proportion that came about because we as lawmakers kept thinking we could get one more year out of our roads and bridges before we got serious about a fix. A year became ten years, then fifteen, and finally we are in a challenging situation.

Imagine, if you will, that we had deferred maintenance and replacement for thirty or even fifty years. Unfortunately, that is pretty much the way we have allowed our mental health facilities to be maintained, or rather not maintained. Most of our mental health facilities around the state, but especially those in Columbia, were built in the 50s, 60s, and some in the 70s. They are in rough shape. Practicing mental health is hard work. It is especially hard work in facilities that have leaky roofs and faulty plumbing.

The flow of new patients does not slow just because we have let our hospitals and outpatient clinics deteriorate. It just makes it much harder to keep good staff. If we defer maintenance on older buildings, we are not saving money; we are just paying a premium so that the responsibility is maybe on someone else’s watch. It makes sense to repair and replace, to bring these failing buildings up to current code and energy standards. The responsibility is on our watch.

Fortunately, interest rates are at historic lows and my preference is to take care of business. Let’s take care of it now while bonding costs are such that we may be able to retire the debt by the time the projects are finished. One way or another, we have committed to care for our mentally ill. We must retain our productive staff to meet that solemn commitment.

Speaking of low rates, the momentary price of oil and petroleum derivatives is such that road building is also about as affordable as it has been in my business lifetime. For all the reasons that each of you know, we simply must fix our roads and bridges. The only real question is how we pay for it, and how we structure the debt which will inevitably accrue.

I’m about as fiscally conservative as they come. I am also a businessman with some experience with investment. There is nothing conservative about allowing our investments to deteriorate for lack of maintenance. Whether we are talking about the physical plants at hospitals or the roads and bridges we depend on to move our families, or our economy, maintenance is a fact of life, whether we are talking private sector or public sector. Like it or not, now is the time to get busy.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was a really busy week at the statehouse. Fortunately, between committee and subcommittee meetings, there was time to meet with a good crowd of home folks from Bluffton and Beaufort County. It was a good combination of public business and a healthy dose of neighborly fellowship.

We are always pleased to see my good friend, Dr. Lynn McGee from USCB. She brought along a number of future leaders to participate in the meetings as well as observe the process.

Dr. McGee had essentially two agenda items. She wants to build on the progress we made last session toward achieving full parity for USCB with regard to state support. There is simply no rational argument to support having the Beaufort/Bluffton branch of a state university supported at a lower rate than others in the system. It is simply a matter of asking those branches that have relatively more support than we have, to forego a portion of their dollars in the interest of fairness. Not surprisingly, it has been a hard sell. Fairness is popular in the abstract, but somewhat less so when it comes down to actual budgets.

The other item was to have a general discussion on how we can contain the costs in higher education. The fact is that middle-class income, in terms of purchasing power, has been stagnant for a generation. The cost of higher education has escalated faster, as a percentage of family budgets, than just about everything, except the cost of health care.

There is very little controversy as to whether a college degree, especially an advanced degree, is the first rung on the ladder of success. It is true, not only in individual terms, but also speaks to the prospects of our national economy. It’s an absolute necessity to develop the clear, creative minds to continue to lead the world in an innovation-driven marketplace. To secure that level of achievement, the costs have just become stunning. Do parents choose to delay or forego retirement to finance their children’s education, or are we to continue to see graduates leaving our schools with a simply crushing level of debt?

This is something that must be addressed. Did any of you go to college in a co-op program—working a semester in your field, then returning to the classroom for a semester? What was your experience? Is the notion of a liberal arts education obsolete? Should we have more training, and less education? The current model, at least for the middle class, is broken, in my view. Do we reform or replace? I want to open this public conversation. Our community has a wealth of experience and wisdom. Let’s hear it.

Speaking of conversation, there were a ton of local folks visiting the statehouse last week. The events were a subcommittee meeting discussing a proposed new formula to distribute state funding to counties and municipalities, called Aid to Subdivisions, as well as a Municipal Association shindig. We saw Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville, representing Beaufort County. Bluffton Town Manager Marc Orlando and Mayor Lisa Sulka, along with council members Fred Hamilton, Ted Huffman, Larry Toomer, and his lovely wife, Tina, were on hand for Bluffton. In truth, the subcommittee meeting didn’t break any new ground, but it was great to see so many motivated public servants discussing how the state, county and municipality can work together, doing the people’s business. I want to have that same get together, but include my Jasper County, Hardeeville and Ridgeland friends, as well. I believe the key to such a meeting probably involves some adult refreshment and a plate of spicy barbeque.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to thank all of you who continue to email or call about the medical marijuana column. This issue has hit a nerve around the country, especially among folks who have not been particularly well served by conventional medicine. Sometimes people find relief from pain or disability from chiropractic, or acupuncture, therapeutic massage, or a host of non-traditional healing modalities. If medical marijuana is one of those non-traditional ways of getting better, and we can control the potential down side, I say let’s give it a go. At the very least, it will be easier to do legitimate research if practitioners can gather useful data without legal sanctions.

Continuing into another controversial area, I did get quite a few emails and calls about the recently filed legislative proposal to teach gun safety in public schools. In fact, the contacts were all over the place. Some callers thought I had lost my mind to even consider such an outrage. Others thought gun safety training is a reasonable part of a well-rounded education. There were, however, a pretty sizable number of folks who found it the funniest thing since Steve Martin put that arrow thing on his head, back before he was a respectable banjo player.

Before this ramps up into another of those “culture war” shouting matches, let me make a few comments. First, we are a largely rural state with a lot of residents who own guns. I have legal firearms, as do many of you. Gun ownership is a constitutionally protected right, which we restrict reluctantly, and only for the most serious reasons. One of those reasons is mental disability, which your legislature dealt with last session, after a near catastrophe at a school.

If the proposal were to replace core school curriculum with a firearms course, no reasonable person would go along with that, certainly not this legislator. However, we have extracurricular activities such as sports, or glee club or JROTC, which are important, not mandatory, and add to the richness and fullness of school life. We also have sex education, usually not mandatory, which helps to inform young folks about the unhealthy aspects of early, casual, or imprudent sexual behavior. It does not supplant the parent’s role in this matter, but, in the best case, will supplement the parent’s efforts. This is how I see a place for gun safety education in public school.

Every time I hear or read of a child finding a loaded weapon, in a drawer or purse, and shooting another child or a parent or themselves, it is beyond heartbreaking. If a non-mandatory gun safety class were to be offered in public schools, I know some of that heartbreak could be avoided.

So much of what passes for entertainment these days is simulated gun violence. Kids see an actor shot and killed on Monday, then see him again in another show on Tuesday. It is understandable that they may not understand that death is permanent. They may get the mistaken impression that guns are toys and not necessarily lethal weapons whose purposes are deadly serious.

Given the fact that firearms are a privileged feature of our society, I think it’s wise to have some sort of organized training or information available, with parental consent, in our schools. At the risk of building a false equivalence, I think we should be at least as aware and as cognizant of the dangers of improper, disrespectful, or careless handling of firearms as we are of improper, disrespectful, or careless sexual behaviors.

Well, friends, that’s my story, and unless I hear a better one from you, I’m sticking with it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

Second week of session finds your delegation hard at it. This representative has been working mainly on putting the budget in shape. One of our most important deliberations on Ways and Means Committee is to decide how we are going to invest your tax dollars, once we have provided for the regular, ongoing expenses of the state. One of those investments that I know to be a winner is the initiative to produce homegrown teachers for our public schools.

I am particularly pleased that the governor shares my enthusiasm for this measure, which offers qualifying high school graduates from some rural districts the opportunity to receive a tuition subsidy if they agree to teach in those districts for not less than two years following graduation and certification as teachers. Not only do we return smart young folks as teachers to their home areas, they will likely be role models for others who are coming along behind them on the education ladder. I believe we will see good results from this very modest investment.

Another modest educational investment that has already paid a handsome dividend locally, is the subject of a joint resolution filed by my delegation colleague, Hilton Head Island Representative Jeff Bradley and I, along with co-sponsor, Representative Joe Daning, our friend from Goose Creek. This joint resolution creates a pilot program for two years that essentially mirrors what Jeff had done in Beaufort and Jasper counties for some time, in conducting General Education Development (GED) Camps. These six-week intensive training and mentoring camps, staffed and taught by qualified volunteers, prepare motivated young people, who left high school without graduating, to take and pass the GED exam. GED certification opens the door to return for either higher education or technical training that gives people an exponentially better chance at economic and personal success. Again, a very modest investment likely to produce more successful South Carolinians.

With the governor’s State-of-the-State comments on the possibilities for greater transportation infrastructure investment, we may be looking at a break in the funding logjam that seemed to be clouding those prospects for some time. This is especially so as Representative Simrill’s transportation study committee is scheduled to report next week on their recommendations. This is an evolving situation, and I will report more fully as it clarifies. I would like to report, however, on a related investment designed to leverage the improvement to our roads, particularly as they relate to our visitor economy.

As the chairman of the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism (PRT) Subcommittee of Ways and Means, I have been concerned for some time about the state of our welcome centers along the major roads around our state. In my view, they were old, somewhat outdated, and just needed attention. One of the problems was that they came under the purview of Department of Transportation (DOT), whose expertise is building safe roads and bridges, and not necessarily building attractive and technologically up-to-date welcome centers. Consequently, PRT is now in charge of welcome centers and DOT can get back to doing what they really do.

Fortunately, my friend Duane Parrish has recently signed on to continue as Director of PRT for another four years. As a hospitality professional, Duane is amply qualified to oversee the redesign and refit of our welcome centers. The first center to receive his attention is in Landrum, near our border with North Carolina. Next on the list are Fort Mill and Hardeeville. They should begin to take shape around Labor Day, with completion on or about year’s end.

Finally, we are still receiving good comments on our medical marijuana column, for which I am personally grateful.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I asked for your take on the Medical Marijuana Law filed by my friend and delegation partner, Senator Tom Davis. From the moment the column appeared in last Wednesday’s paper, I have continued to receive a torrent of comment. While the question was directly concerning medical marijuana, your emails were so wide ranging and expressed such a level of frustration with aspects of our health care system, I continue to be taken somewhat aback.

Most of the letters were in favor of some form of medical marijuana availability, and told of experiences similar to that of my brother Tom, which I related in my previous column. There were stories of older parents from family caregivers. Two emails detailed the struggles of military wives trying to deal with the fallout, both physical and psychological, from multiple overseas deployments. There were some libertarian arguments that viewed the fact that medical marijuana, despite studies highlighting its therapeutic potential, was unavailable and illegal in most jurisdictions as evidence of “manipulation of the free market.”

I heard from folks with chronic pain who were taking a dozen or more prescription drugs, some for the pain and the rest to deal with the side effects of the pain drugs. L. Levine of Sun City put it this way “Doctors willingly prescribe all sorts of pain killers which have serious side effects and don’t provide relief. I will not use those drugs. I am close to 80 and…I would like to try marijuana to see if it helps enough so that I can return to a normal life… I cannot understand why those of us in pain are restricted from using a drug because other people will misuse it…My friends and neighbors in Sun City are almost all in support of the legislation, or willing to give it serious consideration.”

Another articulate and well-reasoned email came from C. Davis of Bluffton, a survivor of three “successful but horrendous battles” with cancer. She was a federal employee in Washington, D.C. who describes herself as “conservative and practical by nature.” (She and I both) Being cognizant of the therapeutic potential and the demonstrable downside of marijuana, she emphasized that any medical use of the drug should not look anything like the “California model…with a pot shop in every strip mall.” It needs to be gradually introduced with tight controls and multiple layers of review. Medical marijuana “if handled carefully, can help some of our most ill citizens…If handled haphazardly, it can devastate our most vulnerable communities with increased crime and drug usage.”

Lou Herzog has been a friend, supporter, and advisor for many years. He was also good enough to offer his views on this matter. Lou has been a stalwart in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) since 1983, a year in which there were 27,000 alcohol related deaths on our highways. While that figure has dropped to around 16,000 recently, he sees a probable parallel with the increase of “impaired driving” involving drugs, including prescription drugs, potentially including marijuana. While he accepts the inevitability of prescription medical marijuana, he urges us, as lawmakers, to go slowly, review what other states have had success with, and don’t leave a lot of loopholes in the enforcement. In his own inimitable way, Lou says: “I’m 82 now and God willing I’ll be around a while longer, but my and your children, grandchildren, etc., will have to live with the laws we put on the books now.”

Thank you, friends. I am grateful and humbled by your candor and generosity-- and privileged to be your representative.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

From the House

Bluffton Today

After a very busy fall and early winter, we are finally in legislative session. The last couple of months of 2014 were just packed with Ways and Means Committee pre-session meetings, as well as the study committees and subcommittees to formulate strong recommendations for legislative action as we reconvene. The planning is over and it’s time to get to work.

As you may know, my friend and delegation colleague, Senator Tom Davis, has sponsored a bill from the senate side called the Medical Marijuana Law. It proposes a state program to make medical marijuana available to folks with documented need for this drug, when prescribed by a medical doctor. Needless to say, this is a controversial proposal and I need to hear from you, the residents and voters of District 118. I have certain thoughts and feelings about this issue, which I will share in a moment. However, as your representative, I must have a sense of how the community at large comes down on this matter.

This is not the first time I have sought your council on important issues, and you have never let me down. Whether I needed your thoughts on the limits of imminent domain as a way for the state to secure land for important projects, or whether you thought development issues along the Colleton/Okatie needed more scrutiny, you have given me what I needed to do the proper thing. I know this time will be no exception.

The primary argument opposing medical marijuana is the “slippery slope” notion that this is just a way to crack the door for decriminalization of marijuana, perhaps leading toward legal access to a host of currently illegal substances. It is said that prescriptions for medical marijuana erode the seriousness of the doctor/patient relationship, leading to make-believe illnesses and disingenuous treatment. There is also the safety question that is: We already have a huge problem with driving under the influence of alcohol, why add another drug that drivers should not take before driving?

Medical marijuana advocates counter by saying that pain management is made simpler and more effective if medical marijuana is in the mix. This often leads to less reliance on addicting and costly narcotics. There are some good studies that show effectiveness in treating some phobias and Post Traumatic Stress with controlled amounts of marijuana. There is also the difficulty of doing good research into the potential breakthroughs that may reside in this drug, if it’s still stigmatized as illegal across the board. Such a breakthrough is the seizure reducing marijuana oil, now somewhat available due to the exemplary efforts of Senator Davis in the last session.

My thinking on this issue comes partly from the competing arguments, but mainly from the experiences of my brother and former business partner, Tom Herbkersman. Tom was diagnosed with a virulent and very painful form of cancer a number of years ago. As a smart man with a fair bit of success, he was able to access the best that both conventional and complementary medicine had to offer, before finally passing away a couple of years ago. Due to his being able to fly to California to a pain management clinic, he was prescribed medical marijuana. I am convinced that it extended his life and gave his final years a profoundly higher quality than if he had not be able to access the medical marijuana. He kept his appetite and weight up, and his pain levels down, almost until the end.

Please send me your thoughts to

Finally, our thoughts and prayers go out to my friends Al and Shannon Stokes. Their son, Collin, unexpectedly passed away last week. Al is the long-time manager of the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

From The House

Bluffton Today

Most people understand that the job of the General Assembly is to make the laws of the state, and provide for the financing and implementation of those laws. We also, when needed, will make certain that state programs, a reflection of your will as expressed through your legislature, are being carried out in an efficient and prudent manner.

Currently, the Legislative Audit Council is the feature of the General Assembly that responds to member requests to look at a particular program or agency with an eye toward the aforementioned efficiency and prudence.

As an example of how this works, I will use a recent limited review of the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC). These folks, under Director Perry Simpson, look into allegations of illegal discrimination in the employment area, as well as in the area of housing.

SCHAC receives around $1.6 million in state general funds toward a budget of around $2.242 million. The balance of their funding comes from the federal government in the form of grants and contracts with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as part of the execution and administration of federal and state missions in the respective areas of employment and housing.

SCHAC has a permanent staff and an appointed 9-member governing board. The governor appoints board members, with advice and consent of the Senate. There is one member from each district and two at-large members. One of the longest serving board members is my good friend, Joe Fregale, from Sun City.

The first area of review had to do with staffing and human resources issues. There were no glaring matters of concern, although there was some discussion of the fact that 6 of the 9 investigators had less than two years tenure with the agency. This may be one of the reasons that the average time to resolve cases of alleged discrimination has gone from 202 days to 249 days in the last two years. This may also be fallout from the impact of the Great Recession. The Audit Commission recommended that the staff establish a goal of 180 days for case resolution. They also recommended that position descriptions be clarified.

Auditors also reviewed the agency’s use of grants and other funds, as well as the use of outside resources and consultants. It was determined that the outside resources were generally efficiently used, but there was a minor fiscal issues from FY 12-13 where HUD funds were advanced to take care of unanticipated administrative costs from increased case loads. SCHAC is currently up to date on all accounts.

The Audit Council noted that many of the board members were serving beyond their designated terms because their replacements had not been nominated or seated. The board was also found to be two members short, for the same reason. The recommendation was for the governor to appoint new members.

Finally, the auditors found that some of the paperwork required of the agency was redundant, with a recommendation that the yearly final report requirement be deleted.

As a businessman who has done any number of audits, both formal and informal, I would say that the South Carolina Human Rights Commission came through the process looking pretty good. I commend the director, Perry Simpson, for continuing the good work. I also thank Joe Fregale for his contribution to this important but somewhat thankless work. Those who know Joe are not surprised that any organization he might be tasked to oversee would not stray far from the straight and narrow.

Next week, we will officially be in session. As always, you deserve the real story, and here’s where you’ll find it