Update – May 10 to May 15, 2010

The House of Representatives met this past week. I hope that you find this update helpful and informative:

Driving and High School Dropouts: This bill (H.3645) received final passage in the House this past Wednesday and is now in the Senate. For the link to see how the House voted on final passage of the bill, please click here. To recap, 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 including where the young person has to go to work to support himself or his immediate family. South Carolina first recognized the need for this legislation in 1989 in the Governor’s Commission on the Future Report. Since then, a generation of children have passed through our schools. It is undisputed that the high school dropout rate perpetuates social ills such as crime, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, juvenile delinquency, and high unemployment. All of these areas cost taxpayers money in some way or another. The statistics show that about 80% of those who dropout do so in the 9th or 10th grade. If we can get more kids to stay in school until the 11th grade, then it is much more likely that they will graduate. The data also shows that those who finish high school will earn about $1 Million more on average over their lifetime than those who do not finish high school. Raising the average educational attainment of our citizens will also improve the quality of our state’s workforce helping make our state more attractive to new industry expansion. The bottom line is we have to encourage more kids to stay in school and finish versus dropping out. Although this bill is not the “silver bullet” to the high school dropout problem, it is part of the solution in our effort to combat the high school dropout rate in the short term. If you also believe that this bill is long overdue, then I encourage you to contact as many state senators as you can and ask them to support passage of H.3645.

Cigarette Tax: The House and the Senate voted this week to override Governor Sanford’s veto of the cigarette tax legislation. The new law will go into effect on July 1 and it raises the cigarette tax 50 cents a pack. Under the plan, most of the money (about $130 Million) will go into a Medicaid Reserve Fund. A fraction will go toward cancer research and smoking cessation programs. I voted to override the veto based largely upon the overwhelming feedback from hundreds of people in District 81. Additionally, when I campaigned two years ago, I stated several times that I would oppose other tax increases but I would vote to raise the cigarette tax and part of the money should be used for health care including Medicaid. Further, statistics show that for each pack of cigarettes sold in South Carolina, the cost to our State government and taxpayers in smoking-related healthcare costs and lost productivity is $7.59 per pack. Finally, the U.S. Attorney in Charlotte recently documented that cigarette trafficking in the United States has been linked to direct funding for terrorist organizations including al Qaeda. Much of that cigarette trafficking includes purchasing large quantities in South Carolina and then selling the cigarettes on the black market in extremely high cigarette tax states such as New York. I appreciate all of the feedback on this issue during the past two years.

Court Fees – No Good Choice: Do we fund an entire branch of state government with fees or do we shut down our state’s courts? That was the decision we had this year. Because of past excessive spending and poor budgeting priorities coupled with deficiencies in our tax structure, our state has been hit especially hard during this economic crisis. Now we are faced in some areas with a bad choice or a worse choice. This was the case last week when the House had to vote on overriding the Governor’s veto of the court fees legislation. House members had to decide between the lesser of two evils: funding the judicial branch with a temporary increase in court fees or shutting down the system. To recap, the House and Senate recently passed legislation which raised state court civil filing fees and motion fees. The increase was for two years only and then the fees would revert back to their current amount. The fee increases were proposed as a way to fund the judicial branch of government after House and Senate budget writers again refused to fund the court system with sufficient general fund appropriations. The Chief Justice repeatedly told House and Senate members this year since early February that the failure to approve the temporary fee increases or to fund the judiciary fully in the general fund budget would result in literally shutting down our court system. Boeing, Michelin, BIPEC, and other state businesses and business groups supported the temporary increase in filing and motion fees. On Wednesday, Governor Sanford vetoed the temporary fee increases. On Thursday, the House refused to override the veto. The House is expected to take one more vote on the veto override this coming week. I voted to override the Governor’s veto because the proposed filing and motion fee increases are temporary and the business community expressed strong support for the temporary fee increases. I do not support funding our judicial branch long term with fee increases which is why I have repeatedly asked House budget writers to fund the judicial branch as it should be: a separate, but equal, branch of government and not simply another state agency. Unfortunately, such requests have not been granted. The problems highlighted this year by the Chief Justice and the Governor’s veto will hopefully result in changes to how the judicial branch is funded. I will work to ensure that the judicial branch is properly funded without depending on 11th hour fee increases to keep the doors open. Your input on this issue is welcomed.

Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and the Employment Security Commission (ESC): As I wrote in several past columns, reform at the ESC is a top priority in the legislature this year. Earlier this session, the legislature and the Governor approved a bill which creates a new Department of the Workforce in the Governor’s cabinet and moves several workforce and unemployment responsibilities from the ESC and the Department of Commerce to the new agency. The legislation also abolishes the board of the ESC and puts an executive director in charge. Another critical area of reform is restoring solvency to the Unemployment Insurance (UI) Trust Fund. This Trust Fund is empty and South Carolina, like at least 26 other states, has been borrowing money from the Federal Government in the past 16 months to pay unemployment benefits. Last week, the Senate passed a bill aimed at fixing the UI Trust Fund. First, the bill proposes using an “array method” which separates companies into 20 categories; reduces rates for those companies that use the unemployment system the least; and increases rates for those that use the system the most. The “array method” is currently being used by 11 other states. Second, the bill raises the taxable employee wage base from $7,000 to $10,000 in 2011, to $12,000 in 2012, and to $14,000 in 2014. The effective date to the changes is January 1, 2011. I appreciate your feedback on this or any other issue.

State Budget: The House may take up the Senate budget this week. If the House concurs, then it goes to the Governor. If the House does not concur, then it goes to a Conference Committee. This past week, House members were provided limited details of the Senate budget. Based on what I know now of the Senate budget, I may not support it. I expect to learn more details this week.

Order of Succession in Absence of Governor: The House Judiciary Committee this past week favorably reported out a bill which defines specifically when the Lt. Governor is to assume control of the State under the State Constitution in the absence of the Governor. Last summer, when Governor Sanford disappeared for five days, the lack of a formal system for succession when the Governor is temporarily absent became evident. This legislation is aimed to correct that problem. The Senate has already passed the bill.
SCE&G Rate Hike Request: Late last week, SCE&G lowered its rate hike request from nearly 10 percent to 4.88 percent. The rate increase would be phased in over three years: 2.5 percent in July 2010, 1.2 percent in July 2011, and 1.18 percent in July 2012. Under the proposal, the average residential customer’s bill would go up about $69.48 a year, or about $5.79 per month if approved. The State Public Service Commission (PSC) has to approve the request and a decision is expected in July of this year. The PSC has held public hearings on the request in Charleston, Summerville, Columbia, and Aiken. Another hearing is scheduled in Columbia on May 24. A transcript of the May 6 Aiken hearing should be available soon, and when it is, I will post it on my website with a link in this newsletter.

South Carolina Department of Transportation: Recently, I received a report from the Secretary of Transportation Buck Limehouse on the current status of the South Carolina Department of Transportation. A copy of that report can be accessed here. In the report, you can see that South Carolina’s Department of Transportation is responsible for maintaining the fourth most highway miles in the United States behind Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Federal Government Settlement with Norfolk Southern: A date has not been set for the public hearing to be held in Aiken at the Federal Courthouse when the Federal Court considers whether to approve the Federal Government’s settlement with Norfolk Southern. When I find out when the hearing will be, I will post it in this column.

Clemson University Board of Trustees: Local dentist and Clemson graduate Dr. Ronnie Lee is the lone remaining candidate for election to the Clemson Board of Trustees this coming Wednesday, May 19. All others offering for the position have formally withdrawn as it is clear that Dr. Lee will be elected by the General Assembly. Aiken County has not had a resident on the Clemson Board of Trustees in a decade. Congratulations to Dr. Lee!

Dr. Tony Harris – Doctor of the Day at the State House: Local physician and Aiken resident Dr. Tony Harris recently volunteered to serve as the “Doctor of the Day” at the State House. Each day that the General Assembly meets in session, a local doctor from around the state volunteers to serve in the State House to see any legislative employee, executive branch employee, or State House visitor who needs medical attention. From what I am told, most of the visits to the clinic are for colds, sinus infections, and other minor ailments. Thank you to Dr. Harris for volunteering in this capacity last week.

Go South Aiken!: The South Aiken High School baseball team is in the state championship this week. They won the lower state title with a dramatic victory over Brookland-Cayce last Thursday. They play this week for the state title in the best of 3 series. Also, the South Aiken boy’s soccer team plays for the Lower State Championship this Tuesday. They are the defending state champions and are working hard to earn the title again. Go Thoroughbreds!

Celebrity Waiter Night, Relay for Life, and Charitable Giving: One of the largest and most widely participated in charitable fundraisers in Aiken County is the Celebrity Waiter Night event held annually in May to raise money for Children’s Place. As a former member and chair of the Children’s Place Board, I can tell you that many children in Aiken County benefit from the efforts of those at Children’s Place. The Celebrity Waiter event held this past Monday was another success and many thanks should go to all of the people who volunteered and contributed financially to the event. Also, Relay for Life is being held this Friday night, May 21, at Aiken High School as hundreds of local residents walk to raise money for cancer research and prevention. Thank you to all those who help with this event. There are dozens of other philanthropic fundraisers and events held in Aiken County throughout the year. Our community’s support for these worthwhile endeavors is one way which makes where we live so special. If you can help with your time or your financial resources, please find a local charitable organization and contribute.

Email Updates: Many people in District 81 are receiving this email update. However, there are many others who do not receive them because I do not know their email addresses. If you know of people who do not receive my updates but they would like to, please email their names and email addresses to me.

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 four months, 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. Your feedback is meaningful and appreciated.

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