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.