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 schsdistrict118@aol.com.


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