Update – March 9 to March 11, 2010

Update – March 9 to March 11, 2010

The House of Representatives met this past week and meets again this Monday, March 15 for the annual state budget debate. I hope that you find this update helpful and informative:

Traffic Lights in Downtown Aiken: This past week, SCDOT made changes to its newly implemented traffic signal system downtown. Although some improvement has been seen with these changes, there are still problems. Again this past week, I was in touch with SCDOT officials as I received more constituent calls complaining about the new system. Many people said that they will not patronize downtown Aiken if the situation does not improve. This should concern all of us. I am working with Senator Ryberg and others to find a solution to the problems created by these changes. The SCDOT assured us last Tuesday that they will consider returning to the old system if the new changes are not effective in resolving the issues created by the implementation of the new system. As to the cost, SCDOT says that the cost was $320,000.00 and paid for with a federal grant.

State Budget: As reported last week, the full House will debate the budget this week starting the afternoon of March 15. At $5.1 Billion, the proposed general fund budget is about $2.0 Billion less than two years ago. House members received a copy of the proposed budget this past Tuesday. I assure you that I will do all that I can to make the best of this situation. Many folks have emailed me or called me asking about certain areas. I will address some of those as follows:

Budget Cuts to Disabilities and Special Needs and Department of Mental Health: 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 and the Department of Mental Health. These cuts will affect a lot of families who have members with disabilities, special needs, and mental health issues. Many people contacted me the past two weeks including members of the Tri-Development Board asking that I work to restore funding to these areas. I have spoken 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 during the budget debate this week.

Budget — Education: Education (K-12 and higher education) makes up 51% of the total general fund appropriations by functional group. When you add in Health and Social Rehabilitation, they together make up 76% of the total. (Click here to view graph.) Thus, when State Government has to find ways to cut nearly $2.0 Billion in General Fund budget items over the past two years, it is not likely that both education and health programs will not be touched. One area that the Ways and Means Committee cut is the National Board Certification program for teachers. Under the cut, the program will be closed to new enrollees.

Budget — General Fund/Other Funds/Federal Funds: The State Government Budget is composed of three sources of funds: Appropriated General Funds which this year total about $5.1 Billion and which is what the House will debate this week. Federal Funds which total $8.2 Billion and is money that comes from the Federal Government directly to state agencies. Other Funds which is largely fines and fee money that state agencies collect and which in large part goes to the operating expenses of the collecting agencies. The total this year is about $7.7 Billion. There needs to be more transparency and accountability over how the Other Funds are being spent.

Budget — 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. Two weeks ago, 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 this 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 to taxpayers for smoking related illnesses over time if the tax goes up. As always, I welcome feedback on this or any other issue.

Budget — Loan for Heritage Golf Tournament in Budget: It was reported last week that this year’s proposed budget from the House Ways and Means Committee includes a loan of $10 Million to assist in keeping the Heritage Golf Tournament here in South Carolina. Apparently, the loan is being proposed as a safety net if a corporate sponsor does not step in to sponsor the tournament in near future. I do not plan to support this proposed expenditure in view of all of the other cuts to more essential functions of state government.

Additional Budget Thoughts: I have discussed the reasons for our state’s General Fund revenue shortfall and the possible remedies in past columns. I will readdress those in the coming weeks during one of our furlough weeks. In the meantime, remember that the budget process will continue after this week into late May as the budget goes from the House to the Senate and then back to the House and then to the Governor where he may veto certain items. Thus, there are a lot of uncertainties between now and the end of May as to the budget. Yet, one thing is certain as to this year’s budget, state government, and the economy: If we cannot cut unnecessary government agencies and expenditures in a down economy, then they will not be cut at all. I will do my best keeping in mind that the money is our hard earned tax dollars.

Federal Government Settlement with Norfolk Southern: This past week, we read about the Federal Government’s proposed settlement with Norfolk Southern as to the Government’s lawsuit for environmental contamination after the 2005 chlorine spill in Graniteville. The proposed terms of the settlement include $4 Million being paid by Norfolk Southern to the Government’s Oil Spill and Hazardous Waste funds. Also, the local communities affected by the spill will receive 3,000 fish released into Langley Pond and some trees to be planted along Horse Creek. I am very disappointed in the proposed terms and what is being offered to the local communities affected by the spill. There will be a 30 day period to object to the proposed settlement. With other elected officials and citizens in the area, I will object to the terms proposed by the Federal Government.

Texting While Driving: On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that bans texting while driving a motor vehicle. Although the bill would have banned both texting and cell phone use while driving, opponents were able to remove the ban on cell phone use and to lower the penalties associated with texting while driving. Based on the feedback from many people in District 81, I supported both the ban on texting and the ban on non-hands free cell phone use while driving. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Card Check Legislation: Last year, the House passed legislation proposing a constitutional amendment to protect workers’ rights to secret ballots in union elections in South Carolina. This past week, the State Senate approved the bill and the House concurred with the Senate’s changes. The constitutional question will now be on the 2010 general election ballot for voters to decide in November. This amendment is strongly supported by the state’s business community. I support the bill.

Visiting with Students: This past week, I spoke to 3rd grade students from Chukker Creek School who visited the State House. Additionally, I spoke to 5th graders at St. Mary’s School. I was impressed with many of the questions that each group of students asked.

Town Meeting: I am planning a town meeting in Aiken on Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at a location and time to be determined. I will post more information in next week’s column and I will ask the Aiken Standard to publicize it.

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 Aiken Tech from 9 am to 1 pm. Please pass this information along to interested residents of Aiken County.

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 seven weeks, I have received many different reports of problems and I have relayed those to the appropriate agencies.

Filing for Reelection: On a final note, I will file this week for reelection to represent House District 81. I am grateful for the privilege to serve.

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