Sen. Joel Lourie, Rep. Nathan Ballentine, Rep. Beth Bernstein, and Otis Rawl of the state Chamber.
I went to this morning’s “Legislative Lowdown” breakfast sponsored by the Columbia Regional Business Report. I waited and let Chuck Crumbo go ahead and write about it, since he gets paid to, and here’s his report. Use that as a baseline.
The panel was the same as this one in 2010, only with Rep. Beth Bernstein in place of Rep. James Smith.
Here are a few random impressions I formed:
First, while I think these annual sessions have been highly informative and fair to all viewpoints, CRBR should probably make an extra effort to get more Republicans on the panel, just to more accurately reflect realities. I wouldn’t take any of the Democrats away; I’d add a couple more Republicans — maybe Kenny Bingham and John Courson, or Katrina Shealy.
Here’s the one thing I Tweeted out during the session:
Otis wasn’t saying we shouldn’t have ethics reform, but he certainly seemed to regard it as a distraction, as a plate of vegetables with no meat, saying, “I know they’ve got to do this,” but… His tone reminded me of the bank examiner in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Remember George Bailey, all animated, telling him about the fact that his brother is going to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from the president, and the bank examiner says, without a shred of interest, “Well, I guess they do those things….”
Well, that’s Otis being told about ethics reform. He supposes legislators have to get this ethics stuff out of their system, but he’ll be glad when they’re done and move on from it.
Now in his defense, he sees the urgent need for workforce preparation, infrastructure and other things that bear on our economic well-being, and he should be focused on those things. But he was really a wet blanket on the ethics stuff.
Others were more interested in the topic. Rep. Bernstein predicted that, again, the sticking point will be independent oversight, instead of lawmakers policing themselves. She said that was key, but signaled willingness in a pinch to accept a “hybrid” approach, with some lawmaker participation.
On Medicaid expansion, Sen. Joel Lourie said two things that interested me. First that Christian Soura, the guy Nikki Haley just appointed to replace Tony Keck at HHS despite his never having done anything like that, is a very impressive guy. I’ve gotta meet this guy, if Joel thinks that. Or at the least, hear an elaboration on what impressed Joel. Then, he said he appreciates the position of those who oppose Medicaid expansion because they’re worried about the state having to pay 10 percent of the cost after three years. I usually don’t hear Democrats say things like that.
As Chuck noted in the lede of his report, there was pretty much a consensus that for lawmakers to act meaningfully on paying for roads, there would have to be a lot of pressure on them from outside the State House. Sen. Lourie said there are three kinds of people in the Legislature on this — those who clearly see the need to come up with road funding, those who can maybe be talked into it, and “the not no, but ‘hell no’ group.” Republican Nathan Ballentine said that was accurate, and “The majority in the House, the majority in my party, are in the ‘hell no’ category.” He says he’s not afraid of raising the gas tax, and noted that he voted for the cigarette tax increase awhile back. But getting the rest to go along will take heavy lifting, especially with the governor’s veto threat. There was discussion of raising fees for driver’s licenses. Otis Rawl noted that we only pay about $2 a year for those, and certainly, he asserted, it’s worth more than that for our families to travel on safe roads (and for our goods to get to market, he was quick to add).
It was predicted that roads, ethics and one other matter — reacting to the Supreme Court decision saying the Legislature hasn’t done enough to educate children in poor, rural districts — will dominate the session. The general consensus among these suburban lawmakers was that whatever is done for the poor, rural districts, it not be taken away from the affluent suburban districts. Which to me indicates more money would have to come into state coffers, although I didn’t hear anyone say that overtly.
And of course, more than money is needed. After talking about how bad things are in Marion County, Sen. Lourie said, “Maybe we don’t need three districts in Marion County.”
That caused me to break my rule about not asking questions at such events. I rose to suggest that everyone talks about school district consolidation until it strikes close to home. I agree that there shouldn’t be three districts in Marion County, but I asked, “should there be three districts in Richland County, and five in Lexington?”
He actually had a good answer. As he said, if the state is going to help out Marion County in ways that Richland and Lexington districts aren’t asking it to do and don’t need it to do, then there’s an extra expectation that Marion should do some things it can do on its own — like getting rid of duplicative administration. Rep. Ballentine agreed, saying there’s a much greater imperative to consolidate in districts with fewer students total than you would find in a single school in the city.
Yes, they’re right. The case for consolidation is much more compelling in the rural districts. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good thing in the big counties, as well.
Anyway, that’s my rambling report…