Legislative update: Odds and ends

  • Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Christ Our King students visit Rep. Jim Merrill. PHOTOS PROVIDED


Since joining the General Assembly, I have found fireworks at the beginning of July to be an appropriate double entendre. On the one hand, we celebrate the birth of our nation; while on the other, it is an appropriate signal to mark the end of another fiscal year for our state.

South Carolina’s fiscal year runs from July 1 until June 30 of the following year. At the end of each legislative session, the single most pressing issue is the budget and virtually every moment of that final month is used to forge a compromise, address vetoes and plan for the start of the next budget. This year was no different.

However, there has been a steady dose of what the legislature did “wrong” emanating from the governor’s office and the media; so I am going to point out a few things that went right ... or came awfully close!

The first is the budget itself. It is important to note that while prioritizing spending and defining the role of government remains a struggle, it is that debate which is the very nature of politics. People simply have different opinions on how tax dollars should be spent. I am the first to point out that we have never passed a budget that is as conservative as I would write by myself.

But that is not how the process works. Finding a budget that 124 House members and 46 senators (all from different backgrounds and geographic areas) can agree upon is laborious. Imagine gathering the people on your own street and asking their opinion on how to spend a finite amount of funds on K-12 education; disabilities and special-needs programs; roads and bridges or commerce. Disagreement is natural.

What makes it even more difficult is that South Carolina writes a new budget each year instead of utilizing a two-year cycle like many other states. But the fact is (unlike our federal counterparts) each year we pay our debt service; fill our contingency and rainy-day funds; maintain our AAA credit rating and produce a balanced budget. This is an accomplishment that not many governments replicate and is one with which our residents can be proud.

Another positive outcome of the work by the General Assembly is business and job recruitment. The governor rightly deserves credit for appointing Bobby Hitt to head the Department of Commerce and placing a focus on job creation. But the reality is that without the legislature creating a positive business atmosphere there would be no success. In fact, under Sanford, attracting business by incentivizing had almost completely disappeared. And our current governor’s early budgets virtually eliminated the “closing funds” that the current Department of Commerce now uses extensively to recruit and retain business and industry. The General Assembly literally insisted upon these items in order to put us in the ballpark when negotiating against Georgia, North Carolina and the states of our region.

I won’t dredge up old wounds (pun intended), but the port is now running more effectively and making significant progress because of the restructuring implemented by the General Assembly. We also stopped playing “footsie” with Georgia over port issues and now compete on a level playing field. This development is most certainly not because of work done by any branch of government other than the House and Senate.

This year’s list of legislative achievements also includes the creation of the Department of Administration. The bill reduced the power and authority of the Budget and Control Board, which is an antiquated entity that places too much power in the hands of five elected officials. I am confident that future tweaks to this restructuring effort will need to be made, but it is a good start.

On the subject of restructuring, the voters will have an opportunity in this year’s general election to make the adjutant general (the elected official in charge of our national guard) a member of the governor’s cabinet. If approved, this will solidify this agency’s mission as being an executive function.

Locally, there has been success as well. Though the College of Charleston did not obtain research university status, many objectives were achieved. But the very fact that Rep. Stavrinakis, Senator Grooms and I were able to advance such impactful legislation in such a short time is heartening ... and there is now a strategy in place for the start of the next session. But it still hurts that petty politics, i.e. one or two members of the Senate, were able to kill this bill on the final day.

Also, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth by educrats, 18-year-old kids and a few bumbling special interest groups, Glenn McConnell was appointed president of the College of Charleston. In a few years, they will thank the board and legislature for not succumbing to media pressure and will be grateful for hiring such an impactful leader. Glenn is a good fellow and will work wonders with the college.

Success has also been found at the Charleston Aviation Authority. It was only a short time ago when the paper was filled with articles of dissension among board members, between staff and the board, and with questions about building and maintenance contracts. In the meantime, a majority of the authority board hired Paul Campbell who has righted the ship. The Senate and House each appointed new members who have begun to work harmoniously for a common goal: to improve our airport and its functionality. Now the airport is in the news for its accomplishments and credit is due to those who took action.

The General Assembly also placed an emphasis on forming a strategy to protect our state’s military presence. We have seen the negative impact that the closure of bases in Charleston and Myrtle Beach had on our state and our country’s readiness. The state task force is charged with positioning South Carolina so we can combat any effort to repeat history.

An additional item deserves mention. Rep. Cole and I sponsored and introduced the “brewpub” amendment that became law and was recently heralded in newspaper articles. This bill will allow for growth in the industry and the direct creation of new jobs. About everyone and their brother is apparently grateful this law passed, and so am I. But gaining a consensus and passing controversial legislation in such a short amount of time does not “just happen.” Rep. Cole, Rep. Stavrinakis, Senator Bennett and I worked many hours and numerous angles to bring this to fruition and achieve success. From reading the paper, one would think this change just appeared because of the kind thoughts of a few hearty souls. It didn’t.

And finally, a couple of Haley’s local vetoes frankly stuck in my craw. I am perplexed by her stance on local projects. The fact is that in South Carolina, when it comes to taxes there are donor counties and recipient counties. As one may guess, most of the coast are donor counties because of the revenue generated via tourism, the hospitality industry, land values, etc.

In order to receive a portion of the very funds we send to the state, at one time or another, the governor has endorsed competitive grants, requiring earmarks or taking roll-call votes. I am good with any and all of these.

However, each time the process is followed, she uses the opportunity to veto and disparage the local project. It is a no-win situation. As just one of many examples, last year I tried to assist the Family Circle Cup. I signed a form saying it was an earmark and I would take responsibility with the voters for its merit. I am confident it brings positive notoriety to the city, region and state and is an economic benefit. I also know it will go away if we don’t support the tournament. I then convinced the House and Senate to vote for the project, yet she vetoed it anyway.

I can cite many, many similar local situations and projects. I agree that funding “pork” projects are a bad budget practice. But I also know that unilaterally opposing every local project doesn’t make sense – especially when the required funds are already being generated locally, but sent to the state for distribution in other counties. That is simply wrong and I believe the time for the current formulas to be changed is well behind us.

This year I went a different route and figured out other ways to support local business and projects that generate taxes and revenue for the state. I honestly believe if government will get out of the way and let our local businesses compete and keep a portion of the money they create at home, it is in the best interests of everyone.

I apologize for this column running too long, so I will pick up here with my next edition. Thank you for your trust and support, and all the best to you and your family.

Rep. Jim Merrill is the former majority leader of the South Carolina House of Representatives and represents District 99 which is comprised of Hanahan, Daniel Island, Cainhoy, Goose Creek and Mount Pleasant.

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