Category Archives: Legislature

Sheheen’s plan for roads (first, no gas tax increase, which is a BAD thing…)

Vincent Sheheen has presented his plan for fixing roads in South Carolina, and right off the bat, he loses me by saying he wouldn’t do the most obvious thing that needs to be done — increase the gas tax in order to pay for it all.

Here’s his release:

Sheheen Releases Plan to Rebuild Roads & Bridges
Gubernatorial candidate lays out plan to responsibly invest in infrastructure and restore safety after years of neglect
Camden, SC. – Today, Sen. Vincent Sheheen released his plan of action to rebuild roads and bridges in South Carolina. The plan lays out a responsible course of action to improve safety and efficiency of the state’s infrastructure immediately and for the long term.
Sen. Sheheen’s plan centers around four key components that will increase accountability and lead the state to responsibly invest in infrastructure without having to raise the gas tax: adopt a Fix it First approach to focus on repairing roads before building new ones; reorganize the Department of Transportation to save money, improve accountability, and be more efficient in choosing what gets repaired; issue bonds for an immediate one-time infusion of money to get investments started and create jobs; each year, automatically dedicate five percent of the General Fund and surplus revenue to rebuilding our roads.
This plan of action comes after three years of total neglect to South Carolina’s roads and bridges by Nikki Haley that have left only 15 percent of South Carolina’s roads listed as “in good condition,” left thousands of bridges so unsafe that they are classified as “functionally obsolete,” and made the state’s rural roads the most dangerous in the country according to a new study. The Governor has refused to release a plan on roads until after November’s election.
View Sen. Sheheen’s plan to rebuild roads and bridges, as well as his other ideas for how to improve leadership and accountability in South Carolina, at www.vincentsheheen.com. His book, “The Right Way: Getting the Palmetto State Back on Track” includes an entire chapter on improving transportation infrastructure and is free and also available online, here.
Honest Leadership & Real Accountability to Rebuild SC Road & Bridges
Under Nikki Haley’s administration, South Carolina’s roads, bridges, rail lines, and waterways are in desperate need of repair after years of neglect.
South Carolina had the fifth highest rate of traffic fatalities in the country, according to the US Census. Our rural roads are the deadliest rural roads in the nation, according to a new report released this month. In fact, only 15 percent of our roads are classified as “in good condition” with thousands of our bridges so unsafe that they are classified as “functionally obsolete.”
South Carolina’s families, businesses and taxpayers in general deserve so much better from their government. South Carolina needs honest leadership and real accountability to responsibly fix the roads and bridges – we need a Governor who will make infrastructure a priority.
As a small business owner, and an attorney who has helped families and small businesses grow and succeed, Vincent understands that economic activity depends on a good and viable transportation system. Having reliable roads and bridges is vital to growing the economy from within and attracting companies from out of state. Similarly, as the father of three boys and a native South Carolinian, Vincent knows how imperative it is for families to have safe roads and bridges. Taxpaying citizens should not have to fear for their safety while driving down a road in their town or across a bridge in their community.  And we shouldn’t be embarrassed when visitors come to our state by our dreadful highways.
Adopt a “Fix It First” Approach
South Carolina has the nation’s fourth largest state-maintained transportation network. Additions place an increased burden on an already overburdened maintenance program. If we can’t afford to maintain roads we already have, how can we afford to build new ones? It’s time for honest leadership and a common-sense approach where we fix our roads first.
Vincent’s plan of action
  • Issue an executive order to require the Department of Transportation to adopt the Fix it First rule he has promoted in the Senate.
  • Appoint a Transportation Director to be accountable and use the limited resources to secure the safety of the existing roads.
  • Set benchmarks on Fix-It-First projects to tackle our most crumbling roads first. Hold the DOT accountable to those benchmarks and provide monthly updates on projects to improve transparency.
Transform how we pay to maintain our roads & bridges. 
Currently South Carolina is heavily reliant on the gas tax, which generates about $500 million per year and accounts for 71 percent of all state highway funding. But the gas tax is a declining source of revenue as cars become more fuel efficient. Increasing the gas tax is not going to solve our transportation funding crisis. To succeed, the state must diversify funding and weave together sources to responsibly invest over the long-term.  Because of historic underinvestment in our roads we need to create an additional dedicated funding source and issue bonds to jumpstart needed investments.
Vincent’s plan of action:
  • Issue bonds to fund long-term investment.
    • The use of infrastructure is enjoyed by generations of our citizens. Just like a family takes out a responsible mortgage to buy a house for their long-term success, bonding is a responsible way to invest over multiple years in the future that will help families and businesses alike. The use of bonds would allow the state to inject a tremendous one-time infusion of funds needed to bring our roads up to standards while using other sources of revenue to maintain their integrity.
  • Dedicate five percent of General Fund revenue for roads.
    • As a state, we must decide that road funding is such a priority to deserve a portion of general tax revenue — especially surplus revenue. As governor, Vincent would put forth a budget to phase in the automatic dedication of five percent of the General Fund and surplus revenue to Department of Transportation to repair our roads and bridges.
  • Investigate other sources of revenue.
    • Honest leadership means bringing people together and considering many new ideas while building a bipartisan coalition to move forward and deliver results. As Governor, Vincent will explore potential revenue sources to pay for the repair of roads and bridges, including:
      • Lease rest areas to private businesses to establish gas and food sales at rest stops and generate new revenue.
      • Investigate an out-of-state truck tax to gather funds from those out-of-state who use our roads but don’t pay anything to maintain them. This will generate funds and make South Carolina more competitive with other states’ approaches.
 
Make the Department of Transportation more accountable
People expect and deserve a government that works and works well – and when it doesn’t, they deserve real accountability. South Carolina can fund its priorities by cracking down on waste, mismanagement, and incompetence to put politics aside and focus on getting results.
Vincent’s plan of action: 
  • Restructure of the state Department of Transportation to make the director answer directly to the governor
  • Abolish the DOT Commission to allow the legislature and governor to manage and set road funding and policy and to increase accountability.
  • Increase oversight from the legislature so that with new leadership we could have real accountability.
  • Combine the State Infrastructure Bank with the Department of Transportation to provide a consolidated and accountable approach to road improvements and maintenance.
View this release online, here.

Yes, restructuring DOT — as we failed to do in 1993, and again in 2007 (because, in both cases, the General Assembly did not want to reform DOT) — is a great idea. It’s a no-brainer, something that should have been done long, long ago.

And I commend Sen. Sheheen for presenting a plan, instead of playing the game that Nikki Haley is playing — saying she’ll have a plan for us, but only after the election.

But if announcing your plan before the election means you feel compelled to avoid the most obvious way of paying for your proposal, then something important is lost.

Again, we have a way to pay for roadwork. It’s the gasoline tax. It has been held artificially, ridiculously low for far too long. There’s no need to run all over creation trying to find some other way to pay for infrastructure when we have a way to do it already. It’s a particularly bad idea to cut into funding available for all the other functions of government that don’t have a dedicated funding stream (“automatically dedicate five percent of the General Fund”), to pay for a governmental function that does have a dedicated funding stream — a common-sense one tied to use.

The importance of understanding politicians (and media types) as people

There I am after the show, second from left, followed by Eva Moore, Cynthia Hardy and Will Folks...

There I am after the show, second from left, followed by Eva Moore, Cynthia Hardy and Will Folks…

Having heard my limit of cynical statements bordering on paranoia, I resolved, on live radio over the weekend, to do The Most Daring Thing a Journalist Can Ever Do.

I decided to stick up for politicians. And for the media, for that matter.

I learned long ago, well before I started blogging, that the surest way to be the target of derision and contempt — from the public, and even one’s peers — is to praise someone in politics. It’s way more damaging to your reputation than criticizing people. We’re expected to do that. And those of you who know me know that I do my share of that. (In fact, some of you claim, hyperbolically, that it’s all I do, when the subject is Mark Sanford or Nikki Haley.)

But just let me say something laudatory about a politician — say, Lindsey Graham, who I believe is more deserving of such defense than anyone in high office in our state — and here comes the tsunami of cynicism. (Try to say “tsunami of cynicism” several times really fast.)

Journalists tend to relish the criticism that comes from being critical. It means we’re tough, and hard-hitting. Nobody pulls the wool over our eyes! We’re no saps. Cutting remarks make us sound like John Lennon. Saying nice things makes us sound like Paul McCartney. And everybody knows which one was the cool one, right?

Anyway, as Sunday’s show wore on, I endured a number of cynical remarks about media, politics and politicians, letting them pass by because of my long experience of knowing how hard it is to change people’s minds when they say things like, “They just stress all that negative stuff to sell papers,” or, “You can’t trust the MSM because they take advertising and are in the grip of corporate America,” or “He’s no different from all politicians; they’re all crooks.” (These are reconstructions; I wasn’t taking notes. But I’ve heard these kinds of comments SO many times.)

But finally, I couldn’t sit still, and I explained:

  • People who think advertisers control content in a newspaper have probably never worked at one. In my 35 years in newspapers, most of it as an editor, I never once was involved in a decision that was in any way influenced by money considerations, either involving advertising or circulation. (The only way money affected what we did was that the lack of it prevented us from having the people we needed, or to pay for travel, to do everything we wanted.) I DID find myself making decisions that I knew made life miserable for the ad people, and even lost the paper money. I mentioned a situation in which we took, and maintained (and the newspaper maintains to this day) an editorial position that cost the paper hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of several years. That didn’t make me happy or anything, but it had no impact on our position.
  • As for Will Folks’ assertion that we were supportive of lawmakers he despises because of the newspaper industry’s sales tax exemptions, I had to ask how he explained our ongoing repeated calls, year in and year out, for comprehensive tax reform that would put all exemptions on the table? (Doug likes to talk about that one, saying we should have called specifically for eliminating the newspaper exemption. But the truth was, I’ve never seen that one as in any way more egregious than the rest, and I would have been lying, and grandstanding, to say otherwise.)
  • Those who say this or that gets published because “it sells newspapers” don’t understand what makes journalists tick. There CAN be the temptation to be sensational, and we’re always trying to grab your attention, but not for anything so normal and sensible (the way most people see the world) as selling papers. What we wanted, what we want, is to be read. In terms of indulging my deep-seated need, no one had to buy the paper. They could steal it, just as long as they read it. Bryan loved that. After he wrote about it on his blog, I felt compelled to explain a bit. It’s not that I was advocating stealing the newspaper, mind you…
  • People talk about there being too much “bad news.” Well, I’m sorry, but to a great extent, the definition of news is something that has gone wrong. You don’t report on the 10,000 cars that pass a certain intersection safely in the course of a day; you report on the fatal wreck that occurred there. You don’t write about the thousands of buildings that didn’t catch fire; you report on the one that burned down. And you don’t write about the vast majority of politicians who are honest and doing their best; you write about the ones who are derelict and/or have their hands in the till — because that’s what people, as voters, need a heads-up about.
  • On that last point… I blame my profession, and particularly my generation of Watergate-influenced journalists, for the cynicism about government and politics that infects so many in our society today, from Will Folks and many other bloggers to the Tea Party to some of our best friends here on the blog. Maybe that’s one case where we DID overemphasize the “bad news.” We were so adversarial toward public officials and public institutions, so aggressive in chasing after scandal — and (seemingly sometimes) nothing but scandal — that we created an indelible impression among the reading and viewing public that government is a bad thing full of bad people. When it isn’t. We’re just trying to let you know about the bad parts that need addressing.

When I stated that probably 90-something percent of politicians were good people trying to do the best by their lights for their communities (even though they might, in my opinion, be really wrong about what’s best), Will erupted in derision, both on the air and on Twitter:

But I insisted it was true. I might think most of the things lawmakers try to do is stupid sometimes, but I don’t doubt their sincerity or honest intentions. As for the idea that people go into public life to enrich themselves monetarily — well, they’re really have to be stupid to do that, because the greater potential is definitely in the private sector, and the chance of getting caught is a lot lower than in public office.

Not that there aren’t some politicians for whom the pathetic renumeration that legislators receive is the best job they ever had. We had some people like that in the Legislature in the late 80s and early 90s. Lost Trust caught people selling their votes for pathetically small things, such as a new suit or some such.

Lost Trust was the low point in South Carolina, leading to indictments of 10 percent of the Legislature. But I turned that around to say that, when an aggressive federal prosecutor did his best to catch every lawmaker open to bribery or some other form of corruption… he could only get 10 percent. Which fits my 90ish-percent thesis.

Bottom line, people in politics are people, like any other. Oh, they may be more extroverted and given to exhibitionism of a sort, but they are not worse than other people. They might not be the wise solons that they should be — and I, for one, would prefer that they were a good deal wiser than average — but they’re just people.

So are journalists, for that matter, just to come full circle…

Another long and winding road to infrastructure funding

Several days ago now, Rep. Bakari Sellers responded to our discussion of funding for road construction and maintenance thusly:

I told him I’d take a look at it. Which I just now did. Here’s the summary of the bill:

TO AMEND SECTION 11-11-220, CODE OF LAWS OF SOUTH CAROLINA, 1976, RELATING TO THE CONTINGENCY RESERVE FUND, SO AS TO REESTABLISH THIS FUND AS THE SPECIAL PURPOSES REVENUE FUND (SPRF), TO PROVIDE THAT THERE MUST BE CREDITED TO SPRF ALL YEAR-END SURPLUS STATE GENERAL FUND REVENUES NOT OTHERWISE REQUIRED TO REPLENISH THE GENERAL RESERVE FUND, REVENUES DERIVED FROM ELIMINATING VARIOUS SALES TAX EXEMPTIONS AND SAVINGS ACHIEVED FROM THE IMPLEMENTATION OF STATE GOVERNMENT RESTRUCTURING, AND TO PROVIDE THAT SPRF REVENUES MUST BE APPROPRIATED OR USED AS REVENUE OFFSETS IN THE ANNUAL GENERAL APPROPRIATIONS ACT WITH ONE-THIRD EACH FOR ROAD MAINTENANCE AND CONSTRUCTION, A STATE INDIVIDUAL INCOME TAX CREDIT, AND FOR ADDITIONAL FUNDING FOR SCHOOL BASE STUDENT COSTS; AND TO AMEND SECTION 12-36-2120, RELATING TO SALES TAX EXEMPTIONS, SO AS TO DELETE EXEMPTIONS CURRENTLY ALLOWED FOR TECHNICAL EQUIPMENT SOLD TO TELEVISION AND RADIO STATIONS AND CABLE TELEVISION SYSTEMS, MOTION PICTURE FILM SOLD OR RENTED TO MOVIE THEATERS, SOUTH CAROLINA EDUCATION LOTTERY TICKETS, THE EXEMPT PORTION OF PORTABLE TOILET RENTAL PROCEEDS, AND AMUSEMENT PARK RIDES INSTALLED IN QUALIFIED AMUSEMENT AND THEME PARKS.

You can read the whole bill here.

My immediate reaction is that this is yet another instance of going the long way around to accomplish something, instead of just going ahead an raising our absurdly low gasoline tax, which after all, is intended for this very purpose.

But at least Mr. Sellers will tell you what his plan is. Which is more than some will do…

Post and Courier on infrastructure funding

The Charleston paper had a commonsense editorial Sunday on road funding. The thrust, basically, is that pols need to stop tiptoeing around what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is to raise the gas tax. Excerpts:

Gov. Nikki Haley has a plan for highway funding that is long on promise and short on details. So far, the only known fact about the plan itself is that it won’t include a tax hike.

And the road funding plan won’t be announced until January, after the November election. Why not provide all the details now and have the highway issue become a meaningful part of the debate between Gov. Haley and her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen?…

So many legislators have signed the “no-tax pledge” that road advocates have been pitching a badly needed gas tax hike as a user fee increase. So far the hardheads in the Legislature haven’t been willing to recognize the dire need for road and bridge improvements….

But calls for SIB reform, or further improvements to DOT governance, shouldn’t obscure the general need for additional road funding. Or the fact that a gas tax increase is the best way for South Carolina to provide it.

If the governor has a better plan, we shouldn’t have to wait until January to hear about it.

All of that said, let me say one thing in the incumbent governor’s defense — maybe, sorta, kinda: Maybe the reason she won’t say what her plan is before the election is that she actually wants to do the responsible thing — raise the gas tax.

Oh, but wait — she said it won’t include a tax increase. So, never mind… I was just reaching here for something to be hopeful about…

First the snakebite, now this: CVSC endorses McCulloch

This just isn’t Kirkman Finlay‘s week. First he gets bitten by a snake, now the CVSC backs his opponent:

Conservation Voters of South Carolina Endorses Joe McCulloch for Election to House 75

COLUMBIA, S.C. (July 3, 2014– The Board of Directors of Conservation Voters of South Carolina (CVSC) has announced the endorsement of Joe McCulloch for election to House District 75.10438919_551578684954322_776524793762138046_n

“We were delighted to learn of Joe McCulloch’s decision to run again for elected office. We know he will stand up to polluters and protect South Carolina from the special interests who would turn our state into a dumping ground,” said Ann Timberlake, Executive Director of CVSC.

“I am honored to accept the endorsement of CVSC. They have been an outspoken and effective leader in holding elected officials accountable for their votes on conservation issues,” McCulloch said. “I will continue to be a strong advocate for the protection of our state’s s natural resources. I am proud to stand with CVSC.”

McCulloch will challenge incumbent Kirkman Finlay in a rematch of their 2012 race which was decided by just 308 votes.

Conservation Voters of South Carolina is coming off a primary election season which saw all 13 of its endorsed candidates earn victories.

About Conservation Voters of South Carolina

Conservation Voters of South Carolina is the only nonpartisan, nonprofit statewide organization holding elected leaders directly accountable for a safe, clean and healthy South Carolina.

CVSC on Facebook and Twitter

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It will be interesting to see how the CVSC’s won-lost record holds up through the general election. If this is part of a pattern of endorsing Democrats, that 13-0 record seems unlikely to hold up in the fall.

Tom Ervin won’t say how HE’D pay for roads, either

Well, we know that Nikki Haley wants to fix SC roads, but doesn’t want to say how she’d pay for it — at least, not until after the election.

Vincent Sheheen at least says he’d issue bonds for pay for part of our infrastructure needs. Beyond that, he’s vague. From his website:

South Carolina is too dependent on the “gas tax” and needs to diversify how it pays for roads and bridges. In addition to the $1 billion Vincent helped secure for road reconstruction in 2013, he believes we should continue using South Carolina’s bonding authority to make long-term infrastructure investments, dedicate more General Fund revenue from surpluses to roads, and look at new revenue sources to help make our roads safe again. All options must be on the table for discussion.

What I’d like to see from Sheheen an elaboration on what he means when he says SC is “too dependent on the ‘gas tax’,” and therefore must go on some grail-like quest for mysterious “new revenue sources.” I suspect what he means is that SC is simply unwilling, politically, to raise our extremely low gas tax. He certainly can’t mean that he thinks it’s too high.

Meanwhile, independent candidate Tom Ervin takes the governor to task for not saying how she’d pay for roads, and then declines to say how he would do it:

Greenville: Independent Republican candidate Tom Ervin issued the following statement:

Governor Haley’s “secret plan” to fund improvements for our roads and bridges is nothing more than a “secret tax increase” and another blatant example of her lack of transparency and accountability.20140525_0138-300x300

Call Governor Haley now at (803) 734-2100 and demand that she disclose the details of her secret funding plan.  When Nikki Haley hides the ball on funding, that’s her political speak for taxpayer’s having to foot the bill.  Haley’s secret plan shouldn’t surprise anyone.  It’s Haley’s lack of leadership that has forced a county-by-county sales tax increase to make up for her failed leadership.  This has resulted in a back door sales tax increase on top of her “secret plan” to raise taxes next year.

And I’m shocked about Governor Haley’s stated approach.  We are a legislative state.  For Haley to say she will “show the General Assembly how to do it” confirms just how irresponsible Haley’s approach is to our serious infrastructure needs.

If South Carolinians want to maintain or roads and bridges and invest in our infrastructure, it’s going to require a change in leadership.  When I am governor, I will work with our elected representatives to build a consensus for long term funding for our crumbling roads and bridges. And I’ll be honest with you up front that all suggested solutions are on the table for debate.  The legislative process is a deliberative process.  We already have a dictator in Washington, D.C.  We don’t need another one in Columbia.

Tell, me — in what way is the governor’s promise to come out with something after the election different, practically speaking, from “When I am governor, I will work with our elected representatives to build a consensus for long term funding?” Yeah, I get that he’s saying he’d respect lawmakers more than the incumbent does. But beyond that, he’s doing the same thing she is — declining to say what he would propose until after the election.

Are we supposed to read “And I’ll be honest with you up front that all suggested solutions are on the table for debate” as some sort of code that the one responsible plan, raising the gas tax, will be part of his plan? Maybe. But why not come out and say it? It’s not like he’d be endangering his chance of getting elected, because that chance does not exist. (When one is tilting at windmills, why not go for broke and propose the right thing, rather than being cagey?)

So, having surveyed the field, one thing I must say in Todd Rutherford’s behalf is that at least he’s proposing something, even though it’s a really bad idea.

Rep. Finlay bitten by a snake!

And even though he says he expects people to make jokes about it, I’m going to resist the temptation to speculate that he’s been walking too close to the Tea Party.

Because to me, there’s nothing funny about snakes:

 Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, has been bitten by a snake but is doing fine and is recovering.

“My ankle is swollen up the size of a pumpkin, or more like an eggplant,” said Finlay, who was bitten Sunday evening around dusk while he was out walking with his wife, Kathleen, near their house in the Hampton Hill neighborhood.

Finlay did what people are supposed to do when they are bitten by a snake — he went promptly to a hospital emergency room, where he was hooked up to heart monitor and other measures were quickly taken to be ready to counter any adverse reaction….

The snake attack happened very suddenly, he said.

“All I saw was a flash out of the bottom of my eye, and I felt like I’d been stung by about 10 wasps.”…

It was either a copperhead, or some kind of rat snake — we call them chicken snakes,” he said. “It was a small snake and only got one fang in.”…

I wouldn’t think a rat snake would cause a reaction like that. I mean, the difference between that and a copperhead is kind of like night and day — isn’t it?

Anyway, I hope he recovers quickly…

Another centrist video message from an SC Democrat

There’s nothing terribly surprising about South Carolina Democrats gravitating toward the center — they’ve done it as long as I’ve been following politics in my home state.

But I’m definitely seeing a pronounced trend toward setting out those positions very definitely, so you make no mistake.

You saw the recent Tombo Hite video, stressing limited government and keeping taxes low (not lowering taxes, but keeping them low — a truthful distinction you won’t often hear from Republicans, who tend to pander to the erroneous belief that taxes are high in SC).

Now here’s one featuring Vida Miller from the Georgetown area, stressing “Community. Integrity. Responsibility.” Communitarian values that sound sort of conservative because they ARE conservative in the traditional sense of the word — as distinguished from all the anti-institutional bomb-throwers who call themselves “conservative” these days.

vida miller

CVSC says lack of transparency hurts conservation cause

Remember Cindi Scoppe’s column about how inexcusable it was for the final version of the budget to be set by two men, rather than the traditional conference committee?

And remember Shane Massey’s “coup” speech in which he cited that as one of the reasons he opposed Hugh Leatherman as Senate president pro tempore?

Well, now Ann Timberlake of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina is offering a specific example of how such lack of transparency can hurt, at least from her organization’s perspective — although she does give Leatherman credit for leaving the door open to revisiting the matter:

We win some and we lose some at the State House but we are most likely to lose when decisions are made behind closed doors.

In March, we celebrated when the House approved the full amount that estimates projected for the Conservation Bank from the normal Deed Stamp formula (around $10.5 million).  The vote was transparent and decisive at 111-5 and 41-3 in the Senate.

But things changed when Representatives and Senators delegated their responsibilities for finalizing the budget to two individuals: the House Ways & Means Chair (Rep. Brian White) and the Senate Finance Chair (Sen. Hugh Leatherman).  This is the first time in recent memory that a transparent Conference Committee was circumvented.  It likely happened because there were few differences between the House and Senate budgets and there were more revenues projected by the Board of Economic Advisors.

What could not have happened in the open, however, happened behind closed doors.  In the final budget that legislators approved on a quick and simple “up or down” vote, the Bank’s revenues were capped at last year’s authorization level of $9.8 million – roughly $2 million less than the BEA’s revised estimate of $12 million for the Bank.

Do you realize what the Bank can do with $2 million dollars?  Last November, for example, just under $1 million was approved for the Angel Oak Preserve in Charleston County.  In April, 2013, $1.5 million purchased 1,548 acres of the iconic “Nine Times” tract south of Scenic 11 in Pickens County.  This April, $1.15 million went to acquire the Rocky Point Landing in Georgetown County and just over $2 million put conservation easements on approximately 8 miles of Santee River frontage.  The list goes on and more information is at http://sccbank.sc.gov/

The good news is that Senator Leatherman prevailed in keeping the disputed $2 million frozen in the Bank’s account, so there is a possibility that the General Assembly’s “Other Funds Committee” could “un-freeze” these funds for the Bank’s use later in the year.

Only a handful of legislators knew that they were voting for less dollars for the Conservation Bank when they voted for the budget.  You should let your Representative and Senator know that you expect them to retain control of the budget process in years to come.  We cannot let what happened to the Conservation Bank go unnoticed and your voice makes a difference.  Thank you.

Executive Director
Conservation Voters of South Carolina www.cvsc.org

McGill becomes lieutenant governor, Massey cries “coup!”, Leatherman becomes president pro tem

That was a busy, fairly intense hour or so I just spent over at the State House. Since I’ve already written it all out in Tweets, here’s my feed, with a few reTweets and replies thrown in for seasoning.

I’ll set the scene by saying no one emerged to oppose Sen. Yancey McGill for the office of Senate president pro tempore, despite the hand-wringing of some Republicans over the idea of a Democrat holding a practically powerless statewide office for a mere seven months) the horror!). Then:

So, you see, lots o’ drama, but not much suspense. You could have heard a pin drop while Massey was talking, but it was all over.

I like that Sen. Massey joined the thread. One of the cool things about Twitter is you get that kind of back-and-forth. Not just a monologue.

By the way, when I wrote that “the battle for pro tem is joined on the Senate floor,” I didn’t realize there wasn’t going to be a battle, other than Massey’s speech. I didn’t realize Martin had dropped out.

Also, that SRO crowd — I think it was all one group, having to do with the Farm Bureau or some such. They were later recognized from the floor. They just happened to enter as things got interesting.

And I wasn’t looking at Tom Davis when he voted no — even though he was seated right below me — but someone in the gallery near me noted that he had seemed really conflicted, and apparently disgusted, at the time of his vote. I’ll see if I can get ahold of him to elaborate.

And so you see the limitations of social media. It’s immediate, but stuff you find out moments later (and would have known before writing your story for old media) gets left out…

Corey Hutchins’ 4,500-word primer on Harrell saga

As we look forward to the state Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in the clash over Attorney General Alan Wilson’s power to investigate House Speaker Bobby Harrell, you may want to review how we got here.

If you have the time, you might peruse Corey Hutchin’s 4,500-word explainer for The Center for Public Integrity, headlined “An ethical mess in South Carolina.”

Corey sets the scene thusly:

On a recent Thursday, a light rain was washing against the office window of South Carolina’s first-term attorney general, Alan Wilson. On the floor near his desk, about a dozen thick black binders spilled out of the bottom shelf of a bookcase and onto the carpet. Inside each of them: supporting documentation from a 10-month state police investigation into the sitting House speaker, Bobby Harrell, a fellow Republican and arguably the state’s most powerful politician.

“And that’s just a preliminary investigation,” said Wilson, gesturing to the pile.

The attorney general will not say what’s inside the binders, and no one outside a handful of lawyers, prosecutors, law enforcement agents and grand jurors who are sworn to secrecy have seen what’s in the report. The speaker of the House himself hasn’t seen what’s in it either, although he’s called for Wilson to release the voluminous file to the public, maintaining he’s done nothing wrong and decrying the grand jury probe as political in nature.

But the question of what’s in those binders is but one of many queries that have riveted the Palmetto State as it struggles to cope with a scandal unprecedented even by the standards of this often ethically challenged state. Whether Wilson, the state’s top prosecutor, will be able to continue an investigation he turned over to a state grand jury in January has itself now come into question. A state court judge who was elected by the legislators — South Carolina is one of just two states that allow that — issued a stunning ruling last month that said the AG lacks jurisdiction over the powerful speaker. The judge ordered Wilson to shut down his probe. Wilson has appealed to the state Supreme Court, calling the judge’s order “unprecedented in American law and unsupported by any known legal authority,” and has vowed to press on. The state’s highest court has set a June 24 date to hear oral arguments….

You will already know a lot of what he has to say after that, but you may learn some things, too. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing myself, although I intend to…

Bad craziness in and around the SC Senate

For some time, I had been hearing about how “toxic” the atmosphere was lately in the State House. And when I asked which of several things the person saying that might be referring to, it would turn out to be about the atmosphere in a House whose speaker is being investigated, and who is locked in an increasingly freaky legal battle with the state attorney general of his own party regarding that investigation.

But you knew about that.

Then, in the last couple of weeks of the legislative session, suddenly things got just as weird and uncomfortable in the Senate — which, you know, likes to fancy itself as above such things.

This situation has more aspects than a cat has hair, so let’s discuss it in chunks.

  • First, Glenn McConnell surprised everybody a couple of years back by falling on his sword and becoming lieutenant governor when Ken Ard resigned. Everyone, including yours truly, went on and on about how selfless that was — going from being the most powerful of senators to a job that is only slightly better than a bucket of warm “spit” because several years ago lawmakers gave the gov lite the Office on Aging so he’d have something to do. But eventually, everybody got used to that, and got used to McConnell friend John Courson being the new president pro tem, largely due to the support of Democrats in that body.
  • Then, McConnell decided that he wanted to become president of the College of Charleston, and the trustees chose him for that position. Which caused a whole lot of fuss, but mostly down in Charleston. McConnell served notice initially that he’d quit at the end of June, so somebody would have to become Gov Lite in his place. Courson indicated he was not interested.
  • Then, Courson and others held up a bill that would have somehow magically transformed the College of Charleston into a research institution.
  • Then, McConnell indicated he would leave office before the end of June, which meant there would be no Gov Lite to ratify bills so they could go to the governor, which is the like one thing we need a Gov Lite for, other than to take a governor’s place in a pinch.
  • Then, McConnell, started impugning the honor of John Courson for not being at all willing to fall on his sword and become lieutenant governor. Courson announced plans to step down as president pro tem, with a barrage of self-righteousness from McConnell coming down around his ears. Meanwhile, Majority Leader Harvey Peeler was suggesting that McConnell himself was less than fully honorable in trying to get a CofC bill passed while he was still in the State House.
  • After a moment in which it looked like no one was interested in becoming pro tem, and therefore lt. gov., Democrat Yancey McGill raised his hand — which would give Democrats, however briefly, their first statewide elective office since Jim Rex left the position of superintendent of education.
  • Then, Sens. Hugh Leatherman and Larry Martin expressed interest in the pro tem position — but only (if I’m following this correctly), after Yancey McGill has already held the post and become temporary lieutenant governor. I mean, they’re not crazy or anything.

You see why I hadn’t written about this? It takes awhile even to set out the bare bones.

The wildest part of it all for me is seeing McConnell and Courson split the blanket this way. They were always as tight as any pair of senators in that most collegial body. Back when I had trouble getting McConnell on the phone (which was pretty much any time I wanted to get him on the phone), I would go to Courson and he would ask McConnell to call me, and he would, against his inclinations.

What happens next? Well, if you made me take a wild guess, I’d predict that Leatherman comes out on top at the end of it all, because I find it easy to imagine the Democrats (who elected Courson) backing him than backing Martin. Leatherman, after all, used to be a Democrat, and Martin is believed to be Nikki Haley’s preference.

But hey, in a world in which John Courson and Glenn McConnell are bad-mouthing each other, anything can happen.

 

Tombo Hite shows how you run as a Democrat in SC

There’s no one thing that’s particularly remarkable about this web video for legislative candidate Tombo Hite of Abbeville.

But it strikes me as a good example of how different it is to be a Democrat in South Carolina.

Strategist Tyler Jones brought this young attorney to my attention, saying:

Just want to forward you the new web ad for Tombo Hite, our House candidate in District 11 (Abbeville, Anderson). This guy is a rock star and has all the potential of any candidate I’ve seen in years. Keep your eye on him.

This district was held by a Democrat (Paul Agnew) until 2012 when a Democrat and a Democratic petition candidate split the votes and elected a republican, Craig Gagnon.

Yet, although according to that we should assume this is fairly safe territory for a Democrat, I’ve listened to this video twice, and if he mentioned being a Democrat, I missed it. (This is possible, because I was doing other stuff as I listened. But I know for sure he didn’t stress it.)

Then, there’s the fact that the first thing he wants you to know about him, policywise, is that he’s a fiscal conservative. Although he expresses that with a slight difference from Republicans. You have to listen carefully for it.

He says he wants to “get government out of the way and to keep our taxes low.” A Republican would want to lower taxes. Tombo is subtly telling you that our taxes are already low — which they are — and that he’s just going to keep them that way. (And indeed, I find his promise to fight a gas tax increase — an essential step to addressing our infrastructure problems — disturbing.)

After that, he sounds like a fairly typical Dem, SC-style. He wants to raise teacher salaries and revamp DSS.

And fight partisanship. So, good for him there. (Of course, if you’re a Democrat, you have extra motivation to want the General Assembly to be less partisan, so that maybe the majority will listen to you occasionally — not something that happens a lot in the House.)

Anyway, nothing dramatic here. I just thought I’d point those things out, for anyone unfamiliar with South Carolina Democrats and how they differ from the national variety.

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Haley vetoes: From First Steps to legislator pay

When I saw that the governor had vetoed First Steps (much beloved of Democrats since it was started by Jim Hodges), my first thought was, Huh. Maybe she DID mean we would “no longer educate children,” The younger ones, anyway.

Democrats are certainly hoping voters will see it that way. They are howling blue murder. Even the normally calm Rep. James Smith — the original sponsor of First Steps — got a bit shrill:

“Governor Haley has once again used her veto pen to stick it to education in South Carolina. First she vetoes $110 million in education funding, then she vetoes funding to keep teachers in the classroom, and now she wants to eliminate the First Steps early childhood education initiative. This governor has never truly supported education in this state and no election year gimmick can change that reality. Today’s veto is just another example of Governor Haley saying one thing and doing another. We look forward to overriding her veto next week and denying her the ability to once again play politics with our children’s future.”

But when I read The State‘s story, I had to admit that I don’t know, personally, how effective First Steps, which supports programs in private preschools, has been. So the governor’s wish to see it studied further before authorizing it for more than a year at a time doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe there’s something I’m missing.

I do find it ironic that she is vetoing something that sends public money to private educators.

Then there’s the matter of the governor’s veto of the pay raise lawmakers voted themselves. She says she isn’t arguing with the pay raise itself; she objects to the way they did it. That’s where I have to disagree with her. She thinks such a thing should be decided by referendum. Well, you know what I think of government by plebiscite. Lawmakers have to face the voters after voting themselves something like this. That’s enough of a check on their fiscal self-interest.

On the whole, the governor is ending the session the way she began it — as a kinder, gentler wielder of the veto pen. For instance, no veto of the Arts Commission. And as The State said, the total “amount cut with this year’s proposed vetoes is by far the smallest since Haley took office in 2011.”

Maybe she really has changed. What do y’all think?

Tea Party seeming more and more an actual, separate party

Some time ago — and it’s frustrating me that I can’t put my hands on it at the moment — Brad Hutto gave a speech somewhere in the Upstate in which he announced that Democrats were in the driver’s seat in the SC Senate.

That startled some who heard it, but there’s a certain truth to it, if you consider how divided the Republican caucus is. There are only 18 Democrats in a body of 46, but it’s not unusual for the Republicans to split between, say, 16 regular Country Club, Chamber of Commerce Republicans, and the rest voting solidly Tea Party. (The numbers break differently, according to the issue.) That gives Democrats a solid plurality, when they stick together. (Which they don’t always do; you might even see Gerald Malloy teaming with a Tea Partier to hold up something other Democrats want.)

Democratic muscle can exert itself in some seemingly surprising ways — such as when John Courson became president pro tem based on Democratic support.

Anyway, we keep seeing signs that increasingly, Tea Partiers wear their “R” designation lightly, placing greater emphasis on their snake-flag loyalties.

A small example of that was in this release today from Lee Bright, in the wake of his getting crushed by Lindsey Graham:

Bright Campaign Falls Short – But Accomplished Much


Lee Bright and five other challengers could not hold well-funded Lindsey Graham under the needed 50 per cent threshold in South Carolina’s Republican Senate PrimaryTuesday night – but the insurgent campaign of the Upstate Senator did defy gravity – and Bright was the dominant challenger from wire to wire. While all the financial figures are not in yet, Bright for Senate will clearly have the best vote to dollars spent ratio.
 
Bright ended up with 15.4% of the vote, almost double his nearest competitor – Richard Cash.  He held Graham well under 50% in Spartanburg and Greenville Counties, and doubled up Nancy Mace in Charleston County.
 
“Our team and our volunteers worked extremely hard, and even though we fell short, we have a lot to be proud of,” said Bright, who added, “With Eric Cantor’s defeat in Virginia, some good things happened for the country on Tuesday, even if not in our race. We’re going to continue to fight for what we believe, and we understand that the fight for liberty never ends.”
 
Bright added that he was “humbled by the work of our volunteers – from making phone calls to making signs – these people kept me going. I am proud to have been in this fight with them.” Bright also said that he hopes “Lindsey Graham’s recent aversion to ObamaCare will continue, now that the Primary is over. We’re going to hold him to that.”

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See that? “With Eric Cantor’s defeat in Virginia, some good things happened for the country on Tuesday…”

It’s not at all surprising that he’d say that, but sometimes it’s instructive to stop and think, “He’s celebrating the defeat of his own (supposed) party’s majority leader.” And realize that Tea Party Republicans are getting less Republican each day…

What’s ironic is that Republicans who sympathize with the Tea Party are sometimes the first to call real, traditional Republicans “RINOs.” When of course, it’s the other way around.

SC Republican voters on Tuesday showed that they’ve picked up on that, in their utter rejection of Lindsey Graham’s challengers…

The Harrell investigation continues

Yesterday, the state Supreme Court gave Attorney General Alan Wilson the official OK to keep doing what he’s doing:

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, SLED and the State Grand Jury can continue investigating alleged ethics and other possible criminal violations against S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell while Wilson’s appeal of a lower court order is pending, the Supreme Court said in an order issued Thursday.

In his May 12 ruling on the matter, Circuit Judge Casey Manning ordered Wilson and SLED to stop investigating Harrell and turn the matter over to the House Ethics Committee for its consideration.

Manning also ordered Wilson to disband the State Grand Jury that is investigating Harrell. But Wilson had continued to investigate even after Manning’s ruling, saying the ruling infringed on his role as the state’s top prosecutor.

The Supreme Court’s order Thursday keeps the grand jury intact and allows it to keep investigating Harrell pending a June 24 hearing on whether Wilson’s entire investigation should be turned over to the House Ethics Committee….

While not definitively affirming the rule of law (that will only happen when Manning’s ruling is overturned), this restores some semblance of good sense and order to the situation.

I found it ironic that Harrell put out a statement saying in part, “The attorney general’s conduct has made it clear that political motivations are driving his actions.” In a backhanded way, Bobby Harrell is doing all he can to get Alan Wilson re-elected, by acting so outrageously (the attempt to have the AG taken off the case secretly really takes the cake) and offering him these golden opportunities to look good.

That said, Mr. Wilson deserves full credit for rising to the occasion, doing the right thing at each step along the way.

On a related matter — what do y’all think about the question John Monk raised this morning, whether Jean Toal and Costa Pleicones should recuse themselves in the matter of Harrell, since the speaker backed the former for re-election, and opposed the latter?

I’m inclined to say no — that argument could conceivably be taken to the conclusion that no state judge should ever decide a matter regarding a legislator, since they elect the judges — but I’m open to a good argument…

So, is Harrell now an asset or a liability to a candidate?

Joe McCulloch, who is running against Rep. Kirkman Finlay III in a rematch of their 2012 contest, put out this release today:

Joe McCulloch calls on Kirkman Finlay to reconsider including Bobby Harrell as part of his Fundraiser Host Committee

Columbia, SC - House District 75 candidate Joe McCulloch called on his opponent, State Rep. Kirkman Finlay to reconsider Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell as a host for a fundraiser on his behalf on May 27th. Harrell is currently under state grand jury investigation for ethics violations. Representative Finlay recently introduced legislation that would strip the Attorney General of his authority to investigate and prosecute legislators such as Harrell.

McCulloch released the following statement:

“It is no secret that Kirkman Finlay has introduced legislation that obviously benefits Speaker of the House, Bobby Harrell. First, Kirkman introduced a bill to prohibit the prosecution of officeholders caught improperly spending campaign funds as long as the error was corrected within 30 days. More recently, he joined in sponsoring a bill that would strip the Attorney General of his authority to prosecute ethics violations, including Harrell’s. And now Speaker Harrell is a prominent host in a fundraiser for Representative Finlay on May 27, presenting the appearance of a quid-pro-quo and further demonstrating how blatantly flawed our political system has become. I call on Representative Finlay to do the right thing and show the people of our district that he works for them, not Bobby Harrell.”

Rep. Finlay was featured in Cindi Scoppe’s recent column entitled “How many more times will Harrell’s friends try to quash ethics probe?”http://www.thestate.com/2014/04/15/3389321/scoppe-how-many-more-times-will.html

Which makes me wonder: Is it still an asset for a GOP candidate to have the speaker host an event for him? Or has he become a liability?

I mean, you know, totally apart from ethical considerations…

Does it matter that Harrell’s PAC contributed to ethics panel members? Uh, yeah, I think so…

While I believe Kenny Bingham is saying what he truly believes when he says he would not be swayed by past contributions from a PAC associated with Speaker Bobby Harrell, I’m gonna have to come down on the side of those who would say that this means the House Ethics Committee should in no way be passing judgment on their boss:

The five Republican members of the 10-member House Ethics Committee — which House Speaker Bobby Harrell wants to decide allegations against him — have received some $13,000 in campaign contributions from a political action committee associated with the Charleston Republican.

Those committee members, who have received contributions from the Palmetto Leadership Council PAC, include Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. In 2008, 2010 and 2012, Bingham received $1,000 contributions each election cycle from the Palmetto Leadership Council….

Actually… I would question the impartiality of the panel even if no one on it had received a dime from the PAC. But the money raises sufficient additional questions that the House ethics cops should leap to recuse themselves and let other competent authorities deal with this matter. Such as, you know, the attorney general

Oh, and on a related matter…

It looks like whoever did the coding on John Monk’s story had a bit of a Freudian slip. The story appears on the website under “Crime” instead of under “SC Politics.” Very interesting…

crime

This just in: Craft beer bill on fast track

 

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This came in a little while ago from Wesley Donehue over at Push Digital:

ICYMI: Craft Beer Law Change on Fast Track

Columbia, SC-May 16, 2014:  “South Carolina is on the verge of passing the most progressive craft beer production laws in the country”,  from the Greenville News (5/15/14).

It’s hard to believe that just three weeks ago the possibility of passing the Stone Bill was nearly impossible, but thanks to grassroots efforts and a lot of emails to the SC General Assembly we made magic happen.

Why is the Stone Bill so important?

1. It will loosen antiquated beer laws in efforts to attract California-based company, Stone Brewing , who is planning a $31 million eastward expansion, to South Carolina.

2. It will create more than 250 jobs.

3. South Carolina breweries will finally have the chance to be competitive with the booming craft beer industry taking off around the country.

To pass a bill this fast in South Carolina is practically unheard of and with the potential of a $31 million investment and hundreds of new jobs it would be a mistake for the General Assembly not to pass the Stone Bill.

For more information visit scbeerjobs.com, or contact Wesley Donehue at 843.460.7990

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But — and here’s what I’m unclear on — are we still in the running for Stone, or is this aimed at other, similar opportunities?