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The first year of the current two-year legislative session ended in June. From January until then senators did a lot of talking, meeting and arguing. Even though days lengthened as summer approached, the work stretched into nights as we debated the business of South Carolina.
In the end we passed some good bills, stopped a lot of bad ones and balanced the state budget as we always do. The fiscal health of our state continues to improve as steady revenue growth keeps us operating in the black and maintains our AAA credit rating. That’s more than can be said of our federal government.
As for what occurred at the Statehouse, here’s the rundown:
Debits and credits
We had more of the latter and less of the former as South Carolina finished the fiscal year in June with a surplus. While revenue increased 10 percent, the state’s general fund budget is still not back to its apex of 2007.
Most agencies have learned to operate on less as a necessity. Budgeted revenue for the current year allowed the addition of new classes of Highway Patrol and DNR officers. In addition, 285 new school buses were purchased with $23.5 million. 4-k kindergarten was expanded for the state’s most at-risk students.
Meanwhile, Medicaid spending continued to be the most rapidly expanding part of the state budget.
Speaking of Medicaid, the General Assembly chose not to expand the program as part of the dubiously named Affordable Care Act. Our state is already spending almost $1.1 billion a year for Medicaid. That’s a 24 percent increase in spending this year alone.
This growth is choking off all other areas of state government like a well-watered kudzu vine.
By accepting the stimulus funds from Washington during the recession, South Carolina locked itself into covering residents with incomes of up to 200 percent of the poverty level. That’s about $45,000 for a family of four. This has greatly expanded the Medicaid rolls, but has not resulted in a healthier South Carolina since Medicaid mainly pays for services, not results.
There’s no lesson in the second kick of a mule, so the “free” federal deficit funded offer was declined. While expanding Medicaid would insure more of our people, it does little to ensure they become healthier. Exhibit No. 1: 35 percent of South Carolinians are still obese.
One area where we are seeing positive results in health care is through low cost clinics such as Lancaster’s Care Net. We budgeted $20 million for this type care across the state. We also eliminated funding for South Carolina’s asinine certificate of need process (CON) that requires government approval of hospital capital expenditures. You know, the one that’s delayed the Fort Mill hospital for a decade.
My old school
University of South Carolina Lancaster is critical to our area in many ways. In addition to providing affordable higher education to hundreds of Lancaster and York County residents, it is an economic engine for Lancaster proper.
Lancastrians realize this and have generously supported USCL through the years. Unfortunately, state government has not. In fact, USCL has been penalized in recent years because the way South Carolina funds higher education does not consider the number of students educated.
That’s perverse and we’ve worked to amend it. It’s an uphill battle, though, because an increase for USCL means a decrease for other universities. This year, however, we took a different tack and secured increases for deferred maintenance for campus buildings. All totaled, the additional funds increased the state appropriation for USCL and its 1,800 students by 26 percent in one-time money.
Higher cost education
Increases in the cost of college education in South Carolina outpace all other Southeastern states. The reasons are many, including a lottery funding shell game played by the legislature and universities. Funding of public universities here is certainly not based on meritocracy. Instead, it is mostly political. Along with Gov. Nikki Haley, I’m seeking to remedy that with an accountability-based funding bill which would reward state colleges and universities with funding based on such things as their graduation rates, in-state admission rates and affordability.
Just weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre we almost had a similar tragedy in South Carolina. A mentally ill woman named Alice Boland purchased a handgun and tried to discharge it at the Ashley Hall campus in Charleston.
Ms. Boland had previously been declared mentally incompetent by a court of law and should have been included in the federal database of those banned from owning guns. She was not, however, because courts in South Carolina had not been reporting the names of people adjudicated for mental illness. I introduced a bill, as did House members, to remedy this. After much careful debate legislation was passed and signed by Gov. Haley.
Let the sun shine
Another bill I worked on this year would allow South Carolinians to place solar panels on their homes, use the electricity they need, and sell the excess power back to utilities. This is done in North Carolina, but it is currently illegal in South Carolina. Were someone to attempt it here he or she would be considered a utility and regulated by the Public Service Commission like Duke Energy. Utility companies oppose the bill over stranded costs for things such as their electrical grids.
Those must be maintained regardless of the number of users. If the number of users goes down due to increased use of solar, then the costs are shared by fewer customers. That’s a legitimate concern, but one for which solutions have been found in other states.
Highways and byways
After 25 years of doing very little, the legislature designated additional funding of $141 million for roads and bridges throughout our state. This money was cobbled together from the general fund without an increase in the fuel tax. Bonding of the dedicated funds increased the amount available to $1 billion. Most will go toward maintaining and expanding existing interstate highways. However, $41 million per year will go toward secondary roads – a great need in our area. In addition, $50 million in one-time funds will go to bridge repairs.
Of our 884 bridges classified as structurally deficient, York and Lancaster are each home to 43. The only bridge replacement completed in the state last year was the U.S. 21 bridge over the Catawba River in York County. The new U.S. 5 bridge over the Catawba will soon be completed as will a new bridge on Grey Rock Road in Fort Mill.
This boost in funding is a start, but much more will be needed in future years if we are to maintain South Carolina’s massive, fourth-largest-in-the-nation road system with the third lowest fuel tax among states. Two statistics indicate the severity of our deficit in road funding: North Carolina spends $150,000 per mile per year while South Carolina spends $15,000. North Carolina’s gas tax is 39 cents per gallon. South Carolina’s is 17 cents. We’re getting what we pay for and that isn’t much.
Texting and DRVN
It wasn’t a GR8 year for banning this dangerous practice. Opponents say it is no different than eating while driving. To them I say AYS? As for passage of a ban on texting while driving, MNY.
“The great thing about democracy is that it gives every voter the chance to do something stupid.” – Art Spader, American journalist
B4N (Bye for now)
Greg Gregory represents District 16, which includes Lancaster County, in the S.C. Senate