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.