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Legislative delegation focused on roads, budget and dysfunctional agencies

ALPHA Center hosts annual legislative luncheon

Posted: January 11, 2016 6:32 p.m.
Updated: January 12, 2016 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderurk of Kershaw County makes a point during a legislative luncheon hosted by The ALHPA Center on Jan. 6. Looking on are ALPHA Center Executive Director Paul Napper and State Sen. Vincent Sheheen.

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Up to 75 elected officials and others representing various agencies crowded into The ALPHA Center’s meeting room in Camden on Jan. 6 for the center’s annual legislative luncheon. The luncheon featured comments from nearly all members of Kershaw County’s state legislative delegation, including state senators Vincent Sheheen and Thomas McElveen and state representatives Laurie Slade Funderburk, Grady Brown and Jimmy Bales. State Rep. and Speaker of the House Jay Lucas and State Sen. Joel Lourie were unable to attend.

ALPHA Center Executive Director Paul Napper welcomed everyone to the luncheon, saying he was thankful for the high attendance.

“We talk to each other face to face,” Napper said. “It’s good to use computers and emails and all this stuff, but the old way in Kershaw County is to just go meet your legislator, stop them in Piggly Wiggly or somewhere like that and ask them about what’s going on. And that’s what makes us so special.”

Sheheen, who said 2016 should be an exciting year, humorously began by introducing the new interim director of Historic Camden Revolutionary War Park: his wife, Amy. On a more serious note, Sheheen said there are three things he said the county’s legislative delegation would focus on this year, starting with roads.

“I think we all know … we need better roads in South Carolina. We know that we have a road problem. Our state government has not stepped up to the plate since Bobby Jones was a highway commissioner 15 years ago,” Sheheen said, acknowledging Jones, who is an ALPHA Center counselor. “We see that in Kershaw County and in my other two counties, Chesterfield … and in Lancaster as well. We added some more money last year, some extra money from the budget, but that’s just a drop in the bucket.”

Sheheen said he expects a lot of debate on where the state’s priorities lie -- whether to raise more revenue and dedicate that revenue to improving roads and whether or not the state needs to change the way the road system operates.

“There is a lot of debate about the organization of our agency and how we are going to begin to tackle the road issues of South Carolina,” he said.

Second, Sheheen said the delegation would focus in on how to spend an extra billion dollars in state revenue.

“For those of you in local government, and I know (County Councilman) Jimmy Jones is thinking this right now, one of the questions is with these increased revenues that come from a better economy in South Carolina and nationally, are we going to meet statutory obligations?” Sheheen asked.

He said there are two primary obligations the state has not fully funded in some time: the local government fund, which he said he and fellow Kershaw County legislators have supported and will again this year; and public education. Sheheen said the state has underfunded education by about one-half billion dollars.

“Any of you who are involved in education or just in looking down the road in this state knows if you don’t take care of your young people, in the long-term, it hurts you,” he said.

Third, Sheheen said the delegation will work on fixing what he said are the state’s “dysfunctional agencies,” citing problems at the departments of social services and health and environmental control.

“I don’t think I’ve seen our state agencies this dysfunctional -- some of them -- in 20 years,” Sheheen said. “I think my fellow representatives will tell you some of our agencies, statewide -- the Department of Social Services (DSS) with what we saw over the last three years with kids, literally, dying when they should have been taken care of -- that we have reached a point where we have got to turn things around.”

He said this could also be seen in the failure of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s dam inspection program and the, in part, resulting catastrophe with October’s historic flooding.

“We’ve got to reinvest and recommit to these state agencies so we can help our local DSS go out and be successful,” Sheheen said.

He also said the delegation is working hard for Kershaw County, and acknowledged Central Carolina Technical College (CCTC) President Tim Hardee.

“We’re going to continue that commitment,” Sheheen said of working with not only with CCTC, but the city of Camden, Kershaw County and the Kershaw County School District. “We’re very pleased we’ve been able to get $3 million to go toward expanding the (local) facility. I know the county is also supporting that effort with funds; I know the city and others are as well.

“Like Paul says, the only way we’re successful is when we work together and I am proud to work for one of the best legislative delegations in South Carolina, and I mean that.”

Funderburk said she is proud of the many things in Kershaw County including job recruiting efforts, the refurbishment of Camden’s Rhame Arena and train station, the CCTC expansion, LiveWell Kershaw, a new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant playground in Lugoff. And, she said, “Bethune has been going gangbusters.”

“I just want to say how proud I am of this community and, to not forget, for the response that this community had when we had the flood this fall. We are just so blessed to have the people that we have in this community,” she said.

Funderburk also had three things she believes will be focused on in the State House, starting with raising the gasoline tax in order to fund road improvements.

“This House did pass a plan last year. I was supportive of it. We need this in order for our state to stay competitive,” Funderburk said.

She noted Lucas said without extra revenue for road improvements, the state will have to prioritize only maintaining certain roads and letting the rest “go back to nature.” Funderburk said the gasoline tax has not been raised in South Carolina for 29 years.

“I don’t think that’s a state we want to live in,” she said of allowing most roads to continue deteriorating. “The House put forth a plan that would diversify how that funding would occur. It turns out to be a 10-cent increase in our gas tax and, in addition, we would raise the limit on when you buy a car -- the sales tax.”

Funderburk said the Senate has been discussing different options and she hopes it will be able to get a plan out quickly so their conference committees can negotiate a plan for South Carolina.

Next, Funderburk said the House should focus on the state’s economy, which she said grew at 6.8 percent. It was she who said the surplus is more than $1 billion.

“There are a lot of pressures on the budget. Vincent talked about some of the agencies that have been neglected … but we also have the roads issue, we have DHHS … and also the base student cost and the local government fund,” she said.

Continuing to focus on public education, Funderburk said legislators need to respond positively to the Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina State Supreme Court ruling. She said a report Lucas commissioned from a committee was completed in December and believes the House will act on some of its recommendations.

“A couple of them were an office of transformation that would provide intensive and innovative interventions for these at-risk counties in South Carolina. We would also try to have a school infrastructure bank for some of these schools to be able to have the wherewithal to be able to make improvements on their facilities,” Funderburk said.

Another emphasis, she said, would be on quality leadership in schools from teachers to principals to superintendents, especially in counties with high levels of poverty.

McElveen said Sumter and Kershaw counties share some similarities, including agreement the state must focus on the future, including the state’s infrastructure and education. He also said October 2015’s historic flooding proved people, including officials, can work together in both counties. For example, he said the city of Camden responded when Sumter was hit hard by the flooding.

Bales, whose district includes a small portion of Kershaw County near lower Richland County, said the state is fortunate to have Lucas as Speaker of the House. He said Lucas is “getting things done,” but the House is “just waiting for the Senate.”

Bales recently introduced a bill which would fund assistance to subdivisions hit hard by October’s flooding. He noted some local dams will cost millions of dollars to repair and replace. He also said a colleague is introducing a similar bill to help farmers affected by the flooding.

Brown, now the longest serving member of the legislature starting his 32nd year in office, said the state’s billion dollar surplus needs to be given back to local governments.

“Mother Nature really did a job on South Carolina, but she only did a job on a portion of South Carolina,” Brown said. “Why didn’t she pick on North Carolina? We all know who controls Mother Nature. Why did it not pick out Georgia? It picked out South Carolina. I would ask you, why Mother Nature picked out South Carolina … when South Carolina is just loaded with, literally tens of thousands of poor people and we had a chance in the last six years to do something for the poor people of this state and we didn’t do it.”

He said the state also had a chance to help agriculture-based businesses and family-owned farms. He warned the Southeast, which has been the bread basket of the nation and the world is “going to be empty” if the state does not help local farmers.

In response to Brown’s comments, Sheheen said the state has been turning away money, including by not expanding Medicaid, which he said would have helped both hospitals and patients.

“And we’re now turning away money for our farmers millions of dollars that would help them as well,” Sheheen said. “It’s up to us to change things in South Carolina … it’s up to people like you and me and everybody in this room whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, elected or not elected, to change things to make this state live up to the potential that it has.

“I’m proud that in Kershaw County, we work together no matter what party we come from, doesn’t matter what side of the tracks we live on, doesn’t matter who we are or where we live, I feel like each and every one of you I can reach out to and work with so we can make a positive difference.”

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