Update – March 15 to March 18, 2010

Update – March 15 to March 18, 2010

The House of Representatives met this past week and meets again this Tuesday, March 23. Because a lot happened this past week, this update is longer than some of recent ones. I hope that you find this update helpful and informative:

Traffic Lights in Downtown Aiken: On Friday of this past week, SCDOT changed the traffic lights downtown back to the way that the signal lights operated before the changes that were implemented on March 1. This decision came after nearly three weeks of public discontent with the changes and many discussions between State Transportation officials, City of Aiken officials, and both Senator Ryberg and me. While the signal operations will revert back to the original patterns in place before the SCDOT project was initiated, several upgrades are being retained including the following: (1) the pedestrian signals and operations; and (2) the system installed to detect changes in traffic volume and to adjust signal timing (this will be especially helpful to someone stopped at a redlight in downtown late at night and no other traffic is present). The equipment for the upgrades not being retained will be taken down and used in other parts of the state. Since the decision was announced this past Thursday, I have received lots of feedback from many people who are pleased with the news and glad to return to patronize the shops and restaurants in downtown Aiken.

State Budget: The full House debated the budget this past week staying in session until 8 pm on Monday; 11 pm on Tuesday; and going all night Wednesday until adjourning about 8 am on Thursday morning. At $5.1 Billion, the proposed general fund budget is $2.0 Billion less than two years ago. I will address some of the areas that many people in District 81 have asked about as follows:

Cuts to Disabilities and Special Needs and Mental Health: Substantial cuts had been proposed by the Ways and Means Committee to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Mental Health. The proposed House Budget restored money to those agencies with one time nonrecurring funds. There are a lot of people in our community who depend on the services of Tri-Development and the local Mental Health agency for assistance for themselves or family members so finding a way to fund these areas is critical to many people in greater Aiken.

Education in Budget: As I wrote last week, education (K-12 and higher education) makes up 51% of the total general fund appropriations by functional group. 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 education will not be touched. Much of the debate this week as to education concerned (1) making sure that a substantial portion of the money reaches children and teachers in the classroom; (2) raising taxes for education; and (3) deciding whether public school formula funding would include poverty weighting. As to money reaching kids and teachers in the classroom, I voted in favor of requiring all school districts statewide to have a minimum of 70% of funds reaching children and teachers in the classroom. (Most of the districts already exceed this mark but a handful do not.) As to raising taxes for education, I voted against raising property taxes and against reinstituting the grocery tax to fund education because the proposals were in the form of budget provisos meaning that they were put up without any study and without getting any committee hearing. Additionally, the Tax Realignment Commission is looking at these issues and will make its recommendations later this year. I voted in favor of raising the cigarette tax to, in part, fund education as discussed below in the next section. As to poverty weighting, I did not vote in favor because the issue had not been studied and I was informed during the debate that the Aiken County School District would lose about $5 million each year with the proposal as written.

Cigarette Tax: The budget that passed includes a 30 cent a pack increase in an effort to raise money to offset cuts to State Medicaid programs. A 30 cent per pack increase is expected to generate $88 Million in revenue. As currently written, the money is to be held in trust until next year. During the debate this week, a proposal was offered by Republican Representative Kris Crawford (the only physician serving in the House) to raise the cigarette tax by $1.00 with the money being split between health care, education, and a state income tax reduction. Based on the feedback that I have received from many people in the district, I voted in favor of this proposal. However, it failed. The Senate will now determine whether it will keep, eliminate, or add to the 30 cent increase that passed in the budget package. Remember that the Senate also still has the bill from last year where the House passed a 50 cent a pack cigarette tax increase.

Loan for Heritage Golf Tournament in Budget: I am disappointed that the House passed a proposal to loan $10 Million from the State’s Insurance Reserve Trust Fund to the Heritage Golf Tournament here in South Carolina. The loan is proposed as a safety net if a corporate sponsor does not step in to sponsor the tournament next year. I did not vote in favor of this proposal.

Streamlining and Consolidating to Save Money for Education: To prioritize spending in a very tight budget year, budget amendments were presented to take the General Fund appropriations to some state agencies and put those monies into the appropriations for Education (K-12). They all failed. The affected agencies included the Human Affairs Commission, the Arts Commission, the State Museum, and the Minority Affairs Commission. I studied each one closely and decided that moving the General Fund appropriation for each agency to Education in a very tight budget year should be considered especially where each of the affected agencies has other sources of funding both public and private; where each agency is spending its general fund appropriations to pay other state agencies; and/or where the agency could be downsized or consolidated to save overhead and thereby reduce the necessity for general fund appropriations. For example, the State Museum’s General Funds appropriation was approximately $2.8 Million. In its Accountability Report from 2009, the Museum reported that it paid $2.26 Million of its General Funds appropriation to the Budget and Control Board as rent. In other words, nearly 80 percent of its proposed General Funds appropriation goes to the Budget and Control Board to pay rent for a state building which apparently is paid for. Also, the Budget and Control Board already gets funding in the Budget as a separate funded agency. Frankly, I viewed this simply as a pass through and I thought that (1) the money could be better used in education in view of the cuts in the base student funding formula and (2) the State Museum had other funds available to it from both its souvenir sales, ticket sales, and private contributions. I applied a similar analysis to the other agencies where I voted to move their General Fund appropriations to education. Some people may not agree with my vote on these issues but the reality is that we have to be constructive at finding ways to consolidate; to streamline; and to save money while prioritizing the dollars that we do have to appropriate.

Yucca Mountain: Attorney General McMaster filed suit against the Federal Government last month to combat the Obama Administration’s decision to close Yucca Mountain without congressional approval. Because of the complexities involved with the case, the Attorney General and his staff will have to associate a Washington law firm that specializes in issues under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Getting the assistance of this firm and other experts in this area will cost money. During the debate last week, we were able to insert language to allow the State to pay up to $700,000.00 for the expenses of litigating the Yucca Mountain issue. The money will come from a fund maintained by utility companies to serve as a safety net to the operation costs of the Barnwell Low Level Waste Facility. That fund has a surplus and the utilities believed that money from the fund could be accessed for this purpose without affecting the viability of the fund. This is very important to all of the citizens of the State including those of us here in Aiken County.

Taxpayer Funded Abortions: The House debated at length and did not pass a proposal to require the State Health plan to pay for abortions in the cases of rape and incest. The State Health Plan is paid in part with taxpayer dollars. I voted against the proposal.

Time to Review Budget Before Voting: Last year when the budget came back from the Senate, those of us in the House were given less than three (3) hours to review the budget and then vote on it. This past week, a budget proviso was offered which would require that the budget coming from the Senate be posted on line and that House members be given three days before taking a vote on the budget at that time. I supported this proposal but it did not pass. Hopefully, the Senate will include such a requirement in its budget.

Zero Based Budgeting Proviso: At the very end of the budget debate on Thursday morning after the all night session, a proviso to require zero based budgeting to be implemented in next year’s budget preparation process was passed. I am very pleased that this proviso is now in the budget and hope that the Senate will keep it in there.

General Fund/Other Funds/Federal Funds: As I wrote last week, 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 debated this week. Federal Funds which total $8.2 Billion and is money that comes from the Federal Government directly to state agencies. For the most part, these funds have to be spent a certain way as mandated by the Federal Government. Other Funds is largely fines and fees money that state agencies collect and which in large part go to the operating expenses of the collecting agencies. The total this year is about $7.7 Billion. I want to know how much each agency gets from the Other Funds appropriations and how each agency spends that money. I am working to get this information.

Additional Budget Thoughts: While I know no one who likes everything in the current budget, please remember that the budget process in the South Carolina General Assembly takes nearly all session involving both the House and the Senate and the Governor. If you think of the process as a football game, then we are currently midway through the second quarter. Now that the budget has passed the House, it goes to the Senate where it most likely will be changed in a lot of ways. The budget will come back to the House in late May and there may also be a conference committee composed of representatives of both chambers to work out differences in each chamber’s proposed budget. Eventually, the budget will make its way to the Governor. The Governor can veto items and send the budget back to both chambers. It is likely that the House will vote again on a more complete and final version of the budget including any budget vetoes in June.

Next Year’s Budget Projections: Currently, we are informed that there will likely be a $980 Million shortfall in next year’s General Funds budget. Now is the time for the House budget writers to begin working on ways to consolidate and save money. As I have written before, we should not wait until next January to start the process. We must start now at looking at ways to consolidate and streamline state government. There are reports that have been done in recent years which offer recommendations on how to save money for the State. (For example, see the Legislative Audit Council website at www.lac.sc.gov) I am working with other like minded House members in looking at these reports from the past few years to develop a plan for saving the state money in the 2011-2012 budget cycle. If you have ideas or suggestions, please let me know.

Federal Government Settlement with Norfolk Southern: Last week, I wrote 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. We are now in the 30 day period to object to the proposed settlement. I am filing an objection as an elected official representing much the affected area. To file an objection, you may do the following: The proposed Settlement may be examined on the following Department of Justice Web site: http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/Consent-Decrees.html. The Department of Justice will receive for a period of thirty (30) days from March 8, 2010 comments relating to the proposed Decree. Comments should be addressed to the Assistant Attorney General, Environment and Natural Resources Division, and either e-mailed to pubcomment-ees.enrd@usdoj.gov or mailed to P.O. Box 7611, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC 20044-7611, and should refer to United States v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co., D.J. Ref. 90-5-1-1-09024.

Visiting with Constituents at the State House: This past week, I spoke to 3rd grade students from Mead Hall School who toured the State House. Additionally, the Leadership Aiken County class came on Tuesday. Also, local State Farm agents Collette Ball, Denny Michaelis, and Joe Harrison were in Columbia on Tuesday at the State House.

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

Filing for Reelection: I filed this past Tuesday at 12:06 p.m. for reelection to represent House District 81. I am grateful for the privilege to serve.

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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