By Stan Welch
Several members of the Anderson County Legislative Delegation spoke before the First Monday Club, a non-partisan, politically oriented civic organization. On hand were Senators Billy O’Dell and Kevin Bryant, as well as state representatives Anne Thayer, Joshua Putnam, and Jonathon Hill, who defeated incumbent Don Bowen in the Republican primary earlier this year.
While each legislator presented specific issues they hope to see addressed in the coming year, infrastructure and ethics reform are clearly at the top of the list for all of them.
“We face tremendous challenges in terms of funding road work throughout the state. DOT estimates that we need 29 billion dollars to get our roads in good shape. That is several times the entire state budget” said Senator O’Dell.
Finding the funds to even approach that sort of effort will be very difficult. Several tax proposals are being considered, said O’Dell.
“Clearly, we have to do something and soon. Infrastructure is one of the responsibilities that everyone agrees is the government’s,” O’Dell said. “Now, we just have to work out a way to get the money.”
His take on the issue of ethics reform was a little less strident than some. “Since I have been in the Senate, we have removed four Senators. So I think that the ethics oversight is being carried out. That’s not to say we can’t improve, but we have been effective over the years.”
He also pointed out that significant changes in the leadership will take place. “We will have a new Lieutenant Governor next session, and we will elect a new president pro tem of the Senate.
Senator Bryant agreed that there are several tax proposals to fund roads that he is willing to consider, but added that raising the gas tax is something he would not support. “We need to change our priorities. I think we should focus on improving and maintaining our existing road system more than building new roads.”
Bryant also pointed out that the unemployment insurance charged to employers will be reduced by ten per cent in the coming year. “A couple of years ago, improper and false claims for unemployment benefits totaled $83 million. We used to take the attitude that the goal was to get benefits for people. Then, the Department of Employment and Work Force (DEW) began to stress finding people jobs instead. Last year, our improper claims were cut to ten million dollars.”
Representative Thayer expressed her opinion that the infrastructure issue would be best addressed by a “fix it first, then fund it” approach. She pointed out that SCDOT has a history of inefficiency at best, and corruption at worst. “We need to really take a hard look at DOT and fix some issues over there before we start looking for even more money to give them.”
She said that she foresees a lot of changes in the way the House does its business. “For starters, we’re going to place term limits on the Speaker, and on the Speaker pro tem of five terms, or ten years.” She also expects changes to require more explanation and discussion of bills and amendments that come before the House. “Hopefully, the days of throwing out a handful of amendments and voting on them with absolutely no information or discussion are going to be over.”
Two new committees will also be established under new Speaker Jay Lucas. One will empower a committee to pursue legislative oversight of the various state departments. The other will review existing regulations with an eye towards streamlining those regulations.
Rep. Putnam reported that the House Ethics Committee, on which he serves, is planning to introduce a series of smaller, more focused bills to achieve the reforms needed. “Last year we tried to do it all with one piece of legislation, and as Rep. Thayer has said, it simply collapsed under its own weight.” He added that the recent plea bargain by former Speaker Bobby Harrell had resulted in chaos within the House, as various members jockey for position in the ensuing power struggle.
Rep. Hill outlined several steps he thinks should be taken. He would support the abolition of the state transportation board as well as the state infrastructure bank. He would like to see DOT made a cabinet level department. “I’m not entirely sure we don’t have sufficient money for our roads. I think we have an allocation problem more than a funding problem.”
Hill also stressed that the General Assembly needs to follow the laws it passes, especially in the financial arena. “We are required by law to return funds in the amount of 4.5% of the previous year’s state budget to the various counties. When the recession hit, the General Assembly basically told the counties that they were only going to tighten the state belt so much, and the counties could do the rest.”
(Figures produced by the Anderson County Finance Department indicates that the reduced funds have amounted to several million dollars in the last few years.)
“Currently, the state returns approximately 3% instead of the 4.5%. We either need to obey the law, change it to reflect a funding level we can comply with, or cut out a bunch of these unfunded mandates that we keep burdening the counties with. We have choices. We just need to make them.”
He also reminded the crowd of approximately sixty that the law also requires open budget hearings, which are not held. “Maybe if the public could attend and have some input, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are.”