State House Report Week 8 – Roads, Retirement Reform & Real ID

This 8th week of legislative session was jam-packed with sweeping solutions to three major problems facing our state. In the House, we passed a bill to fix our dangerous and crumbling roads, give solvency to the state retirement system, and allow for compliance with federal ID card standards.

For years, the General Assembly has addressed our infrastructure needs in a piecemeal fashion, not actually focusing on long-term infrastructure issues that have created major safety concerns and eroded economic development opportunities. Last Session, the House led the way by passing a bill containing a long-term approach to fixing our roads and bridges. Due to political pressure, the Senate was unable to pass a long-term funding plan. This week, the House has again passed a sustainable and reliable plan that not only dramatically reforms the South Carolina Department of Transportation, but first focuses on curbing our highest-in-the-nation motorist fatality rate by repairing our most deadly roadways in rural areas. The bill is now in the Senate where I expect it will be amended in some manner and sent back for our further consideration.

Our roads are crumbling, but it’s also no secret our state retirement system is in need of immediate attention, too. On Tuesday, my House colleagues and I passed a bipartisan measure to cap the rate paid by employees in the state retirement system, adjust the rate paid into the system by both employer and employee, and to inject sufficient funding into the current system to bring solvency to the struggling benefit plan. The market crash and recession of 2008 along with poor management contributed to the deficiencies we face today. Doing nothing and thereby not honoring promises made to employees is not an option. I believe it’s very important to ensure our teachers, first responders, and public employees have a sound foundation for retirement. The Senate amended and passed our House proposal and I will have another update as we progress further.

Finally, the House also gave bipartisan support to a piece of legislation that would bring our state-issued ID cards (such as a driver’s license) into compliance with federally mandated security standards. You may have seen signs posted in the airport giving ample warning that later this year the TSA will no longer accept the current South Carolina driver’s license as an acceptable form of identification for boarding a commercial aircraft. This bill makes sure that

never happens and allows you and your family to travel without any issues. I also heard from some, who for valid personal reasons, did not wish to comply with the federal security minimums. This bill also included an opt-out clause which would allow those residents to continue without any penalty and without conforming to the REAL ID federal standards.

It is an honor and a privilege to serve you in Columbia. If you need help navigating state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me at Tommy@tommystringer.com.

State House Report Week 7 – Budget, Education Improvements & Fighting the Opioid Epidemic

The South Carolina House of Representatives had a busy week producing an initial state budget, moving again on education improvements, and initiating a push to fight the opioid epidemic.

For months, the House Ways and Means Committee has been gathering operating budget requests from state agencies to produce a final budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1st. Each year, House budget writers focus on funding the core functions of government and eliminating waste and duplication. Proposing and passing a balanced budget is one the most important things we do annually; these are your tax dollars and I take this role very seriously.

This year’s budget specifically addresses the needs of poor rural school districts in 39 counties which have struggled in the past as a result of declining revenue streams among many other challenges. It is incumbent upon our state to provide each child the same opportunities in education regardless of their geographic location; the South Carolina Supreme Court said as much in their 2014 ruling which is the impetus for the actions we are taking today. In this initial funding proposal, $100 million has been dedicated toward repairing, maintaining, and in some cases upgrading the environments in which our students learn. I’ll have more information on the state budget in the coming weeks.

The House also gave key support to another important education-related matter – a bill removing the State Superintendent of Education from the list of partisan elected constitutional officers, instead making it a cabinet agency under direct supervision of the governor. The measure passed by more than 2/3 and upon third reading will be sent to the Senate for consideration.

Finally, legislation was introduced this week by several House members aimed at addressing the prescription opioid epidemic in our state. You may have even seen national news reports dedicated to raising awareness of the growing problem. South Carolina is not immune. In 2013, the Inspector General released a report detailing problematic trends in our state related to drug overdoses. In 2014, a task force was assembled to develop a multi-pronged approach aimed at curbing the current crisis while also focusing on future preventative measures. Like many problems, this epidemic will not be fixed through legislation alone, but the task force did make

several legislative recommendations. These steps are only the beginning and I will provide updates as progress is made.

It is an honor and a privilege to serve you in Columbia. If you need help navigating state government, or have any thoughts or concerns about what we are doing, please do not hesitate to contact me at Tommy@tommystringer.com

Lost on the Cloverleaf: A Self Help Guide to the Gas Tax

Have a little fun today and channel some Walker Percy while reading this and if you’ve read his book Lost in the Cosmos take it as a sign and reward yourself with a sip of Early Times before supper . . .

You might think that I have been run over with voters asking me to explain my support of the current roads bill with its gas tax increase. That has not been the case. Maybe some constituents remember one of the many articles that I wrote over the past four years about poor road conditions, unsafe bridges, gas taxes and overall tax reform. More than likely most people understand that we need to update our infrastructure plan and revenue stream. They do not need me to tell them that a gas tax last increased in the late 1980’s cannot generate the level of funding that SCDOT needs in 2017.

For those against fixing our roads that are now warming up their email machines, be assured that I have been sufficiently warned. A few people have expressed their concerns and I am always open and appreciative of their calls.  Others, spurred to action by radio signals or other less informed oracles, have promised to never vote for me again if I voted for the roads bill. Never. Ever. Not going to do it. Not a chance no matter what my past voting record has been.

My political future has no relevance to this debate so I don’t worry. My concern remains serving the citizens of our community in a prudent and conservative manner as I promised. If you share my concerns about the dismal conditions of our roads but are unsure if the gas tax should be raised or you doubt the mathematical possibility that every voter in Blue Ridge and Greer opposes the roads bill then consider the following brief guide to decide what scenario best describes your self-interest:

You are from Greer or Northern Greenville County or South Carolina – The longer you or your people have lived here, the greater the collective tax investment your family has made into the road and bridge infrastructure. If your family settled in Greenville County back in the early 1800’s they witnessed the construction of the statewide road that ran from Charleston through Greenville and over the Poinsett Bridge into North Carolina. The road gave them a much greater opportunity to prosper.

These days you use Wade Hampton Boulevard, Highway 25, Locust Hill Road or some other traffic jammed commuter road every morning to wait yourself to work while somehow equalizing your automobile time and your ancestor’s wagon time on a cosmic scale. In any event, our state infrastructure has helped your family survive by facilitating commerce. Since you and your descendants are likely to continue living here, the longer the General Assembly puts off fixing our roads, the more your children will pay for the repairs. You should support the roads bill even with its gas tax increase.

You Work and Receive a W-2 Form – Regardless if you were born here or not, you live here and work hard to support your family. You have school loans, mortgages, car payments, college savings plans, utility bills, medical bills and the temptation to buy an endless pile of stuff generated by our Madison Avenue driven consumer economy. You pay a state income tax of 7% unless you can take advantage of several credits and exemptions that will lower your actual rate. You pay a state sales tax of 6% on all the stuff that you buy unless some of that stuff falls into one of the eighty-plus sales tax exemptions. You also pay a gas tax of 16.75 cents per gallon – a tax that has been fair, flat and constant for 25 years. A tax imposed directly on those who use the roads including the 30% of drivers who do not live in South Carolina but help maintain our roads through in-state fuel purchases.

You should now pay close attention. The income tax and sales tax that you pay goes to the state’s General Fund where they are spent on a host of state agencies. Historically, none of these taxes were used to pay for our roads. The roads were supported by revenue from the gas tax. In the last couple of years, the General Assembly has used General Fund surpluses to fix our roads. The canary should be squawking the coalmine alarm in your head right now while you grab your gas mask. Using General Fund monies to repair roads shifts more tax responsibility onto you rather than onto those using our roads including the 30% from out of state. You should support the roads bill even with its gas tax increase.

Let us end with a related story. Recently, a retiree from outside the state moved into the rural Blue Ridge community. I only became aware of her because my cousin’s barn went missing. No, not her dog; her barn. The barn was in the woods near my house and for years was a darkly inviting shape on a cool autumn’s dusk, reflecting many seasons of hardships and harvests in its weathered wood and shadowed windows. Then one day, the barn vanished.

Not wanting to appear delusional and ask my cousin about her vanishing barn, I did the next best thing – I called my sister who tends to keep up with family news. I learned that this transplanted retiree had found a county ordinance that allowed her to challenge the safety of any unused outbuilding and force the demolition of the building if the building’s owner did not bring it up to code. When I called my county councilman, he said that she had driven around our community looking for old buildings and had filed over 100 complaints against property owners. One of those complaints was against my cousin about her barn. Rather than engage in a protracted battle with the county, my cousin had the barn demolished.

What a great way to be a good neighbor. Intent on improving her own property value so that she could flip her house and move on with her iconoclastic tour de force, our retiree (the Blair Witch?) destroyed part of our visible agrarian heritage while caring not about the generational worth of what had been lost. Her kind is equal to the locust of Egypt or a column of Sherman’s finest. Time and again we see the same conflict between those who want to improve South Carolina and those who want to use South Carolina under the guise of improving South Carolina. The users always seem to win.

When it comes to the roads bill, the decision boils down to this: if you care about South Carolina’s future and believe that a prudent conservative people should maintain their infrastructure investment, then support the bill. If you care nothing for South Carolina’s future and are not concerned about unsafe bridges or multiplying potholes, then oppose the bill. The decision is that simple.

Tommy Stringer