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.