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Legislative forum calls for improved infrastructure

Posted: April 9, 2013 8:01 p.m.
Updated: April 10, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Improving South Carolina’s infrastructure was the main topic at the Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Legislative Forum held April 4 at the Fine Art Center (FAC) of Kershaw County.

According to State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the state of the interstates and bridges in South Carolina is “embarrassing” especially upon crossing the state line. The Georgia/South Carolina state line was an example used to show how poor the interstates and bridges in South Carolina are compared to other states.

Sheheen is behind a bill called “Fix It First” regarding South Carolina’s infrastructure -- fixing what is already there first should be a top priority rather than jumping right into building new bridges and roads. State Sen. Thomas McElveen agreed with Sheheen, saying “we need to be careful building new ones until we get our old ones up to snuff.”

McElveen also said that the amount needed for repairs on the state’s roads and bridges totals about $30 billion, money the state doesn’t have.

State Rep. Jimmy Bales said a bill is being introduced to raise gas taxes by 5 cents to go towards infrastructure repairs.

Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce said not only is the state of South Carolina’s infrastructure a danger to drivers in terms of safety but it is also slowing down the state in terms of economy and transportation of goods across the state. Rawl also said that $600 million will be asked of the General Assembly to go towards infrastructure improvements.

“We should not have any hurdles in getting a product in and out (of the state), but we can’t seem to be able to close the deal,” Kershaw County Council Chairman Gene Wise said.

Though the improvement of South Carolina’s infrastructure appears to be a tough journey, State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk pointed out improvements Kershaw County has made towards improving its own infrastructure. The city of Camden has applied for grants to go towards improving Camden’s infrastructure and Cassatt Water Company has also recently applied for a grant to improve its infrastructure, Funderburk said.

State Rep. Grady Brown agreed that something needs to be done about the roads and South Carolina needs to catch up on road repair.

The legislators also discussed the state’s education, noting South Carolina’s low rankings in that area. Funderburk reiterated how important the early years are in child development and that the combination of 4K education and a focus on making sure all third graders are reading on grade level is a must. Funderburk said education’s emphasis needs to be on the kindergarten through third grade years. 

“4K is the best investment you can put in education,” Bales agreed.

There were also references to a need for a greater emphasis on the state’s technical schools. Funderburk said tech schools are helping the economy and job market because they prepare students with workforce skills.

Bales said there needs to be expansion in terms of technical education.

“South Carolina is among the top in the nation in technical education and we should be proud of it and fund it,” he said.

Brown praised Kershaw County Technical College as one of the best tech schools in the state.

The panel also brought up other problems with the state’s government, including funding issues.

“There is no logical argument to sending $1 billion of our own tax dollars to other states,” Sheheen said of Gov. Nikki Haley’s opposition to expanding Medicaid in South Carolina.

Federal matching funds that would come to South Carolina by expanding Medicaid will be diverted to other states that are expanding the program, according to information found on the S.C. Hospital Association’s website.

Also, Camden City Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford questioned the panel about Kershaw County’s local government funding.

“Local government funding has been decreasing when it needs to be increasing. Will we get these funds?” Drakeford asked.

Sheheen responded by saying that they have fought to keep local funding at 4.5 percent of the state’s general fund, where it had been in past years, but that the county will not be receiving that level of funding this coming fiscal year. He did say, however, that the county may receive an increase from current funding levels, but that it still would not reach 4.5 percent.

Kershaw County Councilman Jimmy Jones also had questions for the panel about Act 388 and if there was a chance for any reform. Act 388 removed the burden of education funding from property taxes to the state’s sales tax.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to undo what has been done,” Rawl said in response.

Rawl went on to say that there is some hope for reform regarding the equity with students and a sensible property tax. He also said that there could be a statewide millage to fund local schools and give every school the amount of funding it needs.

On the federal level, South Carolina U.S. Congressman Mick Mulvaney said the state can expect some sort of legislation regarding immigration to be passed before the end of 2013. He also said there could be major advances in trade, though very slowly. He said there will be no significant budget or financial changes made in the coming year. Though nothing significant in terms of gun control laws are expected to occur, Mulvaney said there could be laws passed enforcing extensive background checks.

All state representatives on the panel expressed support for Sheheen should he decide to run again for governor 2014. Sheheen narrowly lost to Haley in 2010. State representatives agreed that Sheheen is the “right man to get the state back on track.”

“South Carolina stands on the cusp of greatness, if we can just get a few things right,” Rawl said.

(The online version of this article has been updated to properly reflect that only the state representatives on the panel at the legislative forum expressed support for Sheheen's new run for the governor's office. Several panelists, who are not state representatives, did not express such support.)

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