Update – March 2 to March 4, 2010

The House of Representatives met this past week and meets again this Tuesday, March 9. I hope that you find this update helpful and informative:

Traffic Lights in Downtown Aiken: Eight (8) lights; 8 blocks; and 8 stops at those 8 lights. That is how traffic has been in downtown Aiken since the SCDOT implemented its new traffic signal system on Monday, March 1. The change has created substantial congestion problems and generated numerous complaints. I have been in touch with SCDOT officials and local public safety officials as I experienced the new system and I received a large number of constituent calls complaining about the new system. I am working with Senator Ryberg and others this week to find a solution to the problems created by these changes.

State Budget: As reported last week, the full House will debate the budget the week of March 15. At $5.1 Billion, the proposed general fund budget is about $2.0 Billion less than two years ago. House members will receive a copy of the proposed budget this week. I assure you that I will do all that I can to make the best of this tough situation.

Future Revenue Projections: State Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom wrote legislators on Friday stating that revenues are down about $250 Million from this point a year ago. He anticipates more budget problems in the next few years. This report substantiates the importance of the Tax Realignment Commission and its review of our entire tax structure and tax revenue streams. The Commission’s report and recommendations are due on November 15.

Cuts to Disabilities and Special Needs: To balance the general fund budget, substantial cuts have been proposed by the Ways and Means Committee to the Department of Health and Human Services. These cuts will affect a lot of families who have members with disabilities and special needs. Many people contacted me this past week including members of the Tri-Development Board asking that I work to restore funding to this area. I spoke with the chairman and other members of the House Ways and Means Committee. It is expected that some money will be restored to this area on March 15.

Cigarette Tax: At 7 cents a pack, South Carolina’s cigarette tax is the lowest in the nation and has not changed since 1977. The national average is $1.34 per pack. Last year, the House approved a 50 cent a pack cigarette tax increase. That measure has stalled in the Senate. Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a 30 cent a pack increase as part of its budget package in an effort to raise money to offset cuts to State Medicaid programs. A 30 cent a pack increase is expected to generate $88 Million in revenue. A 50 cent a pack increase is expected to generate $147 Million in revenue. I expect this issue to be debated on the House floor during budget week. When I ran for office, I said that I would support raising the cigarette tax. I voted for a cigarette tax increase last year and I plan to support an increase this year. Smoking related illnesses cost taxpayers a lot of money each year. Raising the cigarette tax will generate revenue and deter some people from picking up the habit. Even though it is in theory a declining revenue stream, it also in theory should result in fewer costs for smoking related illnesses over time if the tax goes up. As always, I welcome feedback on this or any other issue.

Tort Law Changes: On Wednesday, the full House approved changes to state tort law including setting reasonable limits on punitive damage awards, adopting a sliding scale on outside counsel fees when attorneys are hired by the Attorney General to represent the State, addressing the Statute of Repose on building code violations, limiting appeals bonds, and allowing admissibility of the use or non-use of seat belts. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Economic Development: On Thursday, the full House approved the economic development bill prepared by House leadership this past fall. The legislation includes several tax and regulation changes that businesses said are necessary to help in creating more jobs and attracting new industry. These include a phase out of the corporate income tax over ten (10) years. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Small Business Legislation: I am working with several House members to identify ways to help small businesses in South Carolina. If you have ideas on what the State can do to help small business in the current economic climate, please email me back with your input.

Restructuring/State Superintendent of Education: Last year, at the beginning of the session, I filed several restructuring reform bills including legislation to allow South Carolina voters to decide whether to amend the State Constitution so that certain constitutional officers who are currently popularly elected would in the future be appointed by the Governor as part of the Governor’s cabinet with the advice and consent of the General Assembly. The bill concerning the Secretary of State was the first to reach the House floor for a vote and it received the necessary two thirds vote of approval (83 of 124 votes) from the House late last month. It is now in the Senate. This past week, the bill concerning the Superintendent of Education came up for a vote on second reading. In a vote split mainly along party lines, it failed to receive the necessary two thirds vote of approval from the House. The bill remains on the House calendar awaiting a final vote. If the necessary two thirds approval is not reached, the bill will fail. It should be noted that the Commission on the Future of South Carolina recommended in a bipartisan report in 1991 that public education in our state would be improved by having a State Superintendent of Education who is not popularly elected but rather appointed as a member of the elected Governor’s cabinet.

Driving and High School Dropouts: I expect this bill to come up this week in subcommittee. This bill prohibits possession of a driver’s license until age 18 unless the young person is enrolled in, or has completed, high school. The bill does have a hardship provision for some limited exceptions. I am confident that if it becomes law this year, then it will be a way that we can combat the high school dropout rate in the short term.

Texting While Driving: The bill that will ban both texting and cell phone use while driving is on the House calendar and will be debated this week. I have received lots of feedback on this issue. Nearly everyone who has talked to me has stated that they want a ban on texting while driving. However, as to cell phone use, folks are mixed on that issue. I have listened to all the feedback and I plan to support the bill as is without dropping the cell phone ban. It is important to know that the bill will not prohibit cell phone use when the phone is being used with a hands free device. I welcome feedback on this or any other issue.

Area Offices in Aiken County School District: By a vote of 4-3, The Aiken County legislative delegation in the House approved a bill giving the Aiken County School Board the discretion to decide whether to keep or consolidate the five area offices. Under existing law, the School Board does not have this discretion. This bill passed the Senate last year. We should find out this week whether the Governor will veto it or not.

MTU Diesel Investment for Aiken County: On Friday, I attended the site selection announcement for MTU Diesel at the Sage Mill Industrial Park off I-20 near Graniteville. This is great news for our area! MTU Diesel is an international company headquartered in Germany. It is moving its North American production facility from Detroit to Aiken County. MTU makes turbo and diesel engines for use in the marine; industrial; defense; oil and gas; mining; and on site energy markets. MTU’s investment will total $45 Million and within two years, it plans to employ 250 people at the site.

State Income Tax Credit for Long Term Care Insurance Premiums: I filed this bill last year. It is still in Committee. I do not expect it to pass this year because of the pending Tax Realignment Commission Report.

Job Fair: Early last Fall, I asked the Employment Security Commission to host a Job Fair here in greater Aiken to assist those who are looking for work. That Job Fair is set for Saturday, March 27 at a location and time to be determined. As of now, it is expected that Aiken Tech will be the location. I will post more information when I know it.

Road Issues: If you see a road problem, you can call the SCDOT at 641-7665 or Aiken County at 642-1532 to report the problem. If you do not get a prompt response, please let me know at TomYoung@schouse.gov or call me. In the past six weeks, I have received many different reports of problems and I have relayed those to the appropriate agencies.

Thank you for the opportunity to represent you. Please let me know if I can help you in any way or if you have questions about these or other issues.

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