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Roads, budget, security among legislative topics

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A so-so session of the General Assembly concluded in July. Our budget revenues continued to improve, but the Senate’s performance did not.
Attempts at tax reform never got traction and opponents of government restructuring ran out the clock to spite the governor when the ball was on the one-yard line. Oftentimes in politics personalities trump policies. It was true in Caesar’s time and remains so today. Here’s what happened on some selected issues:
Run together
Let’s begin with one reform that did succeed. That is the change to the Constitution that allows the governor to pick a running mate as lieutenant governor. To me this makes sense on every level, and I’m pleased a majority of voters concurred on Election Day. Next we should allow voters to decide whether to allow future governors to select the superintendent of education, commissioner of education, commissioner of agriculture, adjutant general and secretary of state.
Preserving the past
William Faulkner wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” No where is that truer than South Carolina where we cling to an antiquated system of government, not for the purpose of nostalgia, but for the preservation of personal power. That was evident this year in our failure to deep-six our unaccountable and anachronistic Budget and Control Board and create a Department of Administration in its place. Why is this this important? Well, many of the day-to-day functions of state government, like procurement, are overseen not by the executive branch, but by a five-member board.
This disperses accountability and stymies efficiency. In the modern world DOAs oversee core government functions in most states. After a seven-week debate, senators voted unanimously twice to pass the DOA bill. However, once our bill was reconciled with the House bill, 22 senators chose to block final approval in the closing days of session. The stated reason was to “deny a victory” to Gov. Nikki Haley on her signature issue. In retrospect, the most recent governor that senators were fond of was Dick Riley. He left office in 1986.
It’s time to move past personality politics and level the playing field between the legislative and executive branches. Moving authority from the Budget and Control Board to the governor’s office is a move in that direction.
Hacked
As you are likely now aware, a hacker infiltrated the S.C. Department of Revenue’s computer system and made off with the Social Security numbers of most every resident of South Carolina. It is quite alarming and disappointing that this took place. Many wheels are in motion to mitigate possible damage that could occur. If you have not already taken advantage of protection being provided by South Carolina, contact me and I can send you instructions as to how to do so. There will be a Senate investigation of this incident. I expect more information will soon be provided to our citizens and much stronger security measures will be put in place.
Possum on the half-shell
That would be the armadillo, a close cousin to Jed Clampett’s favorite entree, the o’possum. Enough armadillos are succeeding in dodging traffic to make their way into South Carolina and become a nuisance. To curb their impact they, along with coyotes and feral hogs, can be shot year-round, 24/7. That means you can shoot them at night.
Dig deeper
It is a changing world and the biggest change in shipping is being brought about by the widening of the Panama Canal. This will allow massive Panamax ships sailing from the Far East to reduce considerably the number of days needed to reach the East Coast. The challenge is that our port in Charleston is not deep enough to accommodate these ships at low tide. That will require dredging the harbor to 50 feet. The General Assembly has approved $300 million for this purpose. That should keep Charleston in place as the fastest growing port in North America.
Good for the gander
If our port is the golden goose for economic development in South Carolina then our roads should be the gander. And the gander is looking a lot like the battled-scarred AFLAC duck these days. In recent years we have moved from a 35-year cycle of resurfacing to a 100-year cycle, and now to a 200-year cycle for secondary roads. To put this in perspective, the War of 1812 was fought - you got it - 200 years ago. How can this be? There are two reasons. First, South Carolina has the fourth highest number of state roads in the United States combined with the fourth lowest gas tax.
At 16 cents per gallon, our tax hasn’t increased in 25 years. In North Carolina, the tax is 39 cents. Tarheels can do simple arithmetic, so that’s why one must wait behind them at every gas pump near the state line. So, in the context of simple math, what we collect in pennies doesn’t bring in the dollars needed for resurfacing.
I would say that we get what we pay for, but even that isn’t the case. The No. 2 reason for the poor shape of secondary roads is a decision by the S.C. Department of  Transportation to abandon maintaining them to capture federal matching dollars to resurface U.S. highways. That is somewhat defensible, but diverting huge amounts of gas tax dollars to I-73 in Horry County isn’t. We don’t need a new interstate to get Michiganders to Myrtle Beach 30 minutes sooner. We need to maintain the roads we have. Here are three ways to do so:
1) Shelve I-73.
2) Just as we did for our port, we should put a portion of new money toward road maintenance.
3) Increase the gas tax by 2 cents a gallon each year for five years.
Statehouse not state park
The Occupy movement found its way onto the Statehouse grounds earlier this year. Folks have every right to protest there, but not to live there. The passage of S1267 prohibits camping on Statehouse grounds.
Partial solution
A number of changes were made to the S.C. Retirement System to shore it up and reduce the years of unfunded liability. After almost no progress for five years, a deal was put together on which legislators and state employees agreed. It was a good start, but not a complete fix. As the saying goes, politics is the art of the possible.
Dole full
Medicaid grew to a $1 billion state expense last year in South Carolina ($6.5 billion with federal matching dollars), and Obamacare could add another 500,000 people to the rolls.
The administration’s hawking of food stamps in radio and TV ads has helped boost that program’s expense to roughly $1 billion. Another $1 billion in federal funds is spent in South Carolina on WIC.
Total it all up and that’s $8.5 billion (36 percent) of our $22 billion budget.
Budget matters
The resurgent economy injected more than $1 billion in additional revenue into state coffers.
We paid ourselves first by increasing the amount going into a rainy day fund by $98 million. A total of $400 million went for this purpose of covering potential future shortfalls. The tax rate for small businesses will decrease from 5 percent to 3 percent over three years. An additional $36 million was directed to property tax relief for homeowners. State employees received a 3 percent raise, and $52 million went to cover their increasing benefit costs.
K-12 education funding was bumped up $152 million.
VUI
South Carolinians will remain safe from Voting Under the Influence as a bill failed that would have allowed liquor stores to open on Election Day.