By Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort
‘Tis the season and I will soon return to Columbia for my fifth year as your South Carolina House District 124 Representative. I want to humbly thank you for the honor of serving you and let you know how much your trust and confidence means to me each and every day. There is no other place I’d rather be than beautiful Beaufort — except making sure that we have a strong Beaufort voice in Columbia.
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So, some good news: South Carolina is ending the year on a brighter economic note than it began. Indicators in the past few months have rendered several encouraging economic forecasts for the state.
S.C. Economy Continues to Recover: By measuring the state’s sales and income tax collected, South Carolina’s economy is continuing its slow recovery. The state’s general fund revenue was up 6% in November from the same month a year ago. We’re apparently buying more — sales tax collections were up nearly 5%. Personal income tax collections were up 4% while corporate income tax collections were up a whopping 118%. Moody, the credit rating firm, has restored the state’s top rated AAA credit to “stable status.” Earlier this summer, Moody had issued warnings to five AAA rated states saying the debt problems with the federal government could affect their credit worthiness. According to State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, “This affirms our ranking among the best states in the country when it comes to handling our debt obligations.” It also allows the refinancing of a series of bonds saving South Carolina taxpayers $24 million.
More Tax Money = More Government Spending? I will continue to work to keep that from happening! We all recognize the tendency for government to increase spending when more of your dollars are collected in taxes. Previous estimates show the legislature will have $900 million more available for the 2012-2013 state budget. Unofficial estimates now put that at 1.3 billion. Our priority must be to adequately fund core functions of government not grow unnecessary programs. Just one example: recession cut-backs diminished our state trooper ranks by nearly 20%.
Forecasting the 2012 Legislative Agenda:
1. Comprehensive Tax Reform: Overall, South Carolinians pay lower taxes than most other states, but we can do a better job. I authored a bill last year to remove all the sales tax exemptions (H. 4271 http://www.scstatehouse.gov/sess119_2011-2012/bills/4271.htm) in order to lower our overall state sales tax. Additionally, the S.C. Supreme Court has heard arguments challenging the states’ many sales tax exemptions as unconstitutional. While the justices’ decision looms large and could throw our taxing and revenue system into chaos, alternatives, like mine, are in the works. The House GOP Tax Committee, on which I serve, is moving swiftly to recommend reforms in sales tax exemptions, and property, income taxes and how we can make South Carolina a more fertile ground for businesses.
2. Major Pension Reform: With South Carolina tackling reform of its state pension program in the coming year, it’s important to keep an eye on what other states are doing. Lawmakers in Rhode Island, for example, are encountering similar issues to ours. They had a choice — keep their state’s pension system as is, forcing big tax increases, service cuts, or both, or change the pension system to improve solvency and control the growth of future obligations. Last month, Rhode Island lawmakers chose the latter. They approved reforms that require certain state workers and teachers to move some of their retirement funds into a 401(k)-style account They also suspended annual cost-of-living raises until their pension funding levels reach 80 percent. They raised age requirements and re-amortized the pension system debt to lower and smooth future payments. Employee contributions will also rise. Keeping our state retirement system vital is important and will be a large part of this upcoming session.
3. A Responsible Budget: As mentioned above, more revenue is forecasted but how it is spent is vital to our state’s well-being. Having extra revenue doesn’t mean that we have “extra” money. Appropriately funding core functions of government, making sure that you, the citizens, see a value in how your tax dollars are invested in our state and not allowing agencies to operate in deficits are important to our state’s fiscal health. We also must remember that when we have debt, it must be paid back and we should save and have adequate funds in the state’s rainy day fund.
4. Senate Action: The South Carolina House passed several key pieces of legislation last year and far too many are sitting in Senate committees or on their crowded docket. A few dedicated senators (Bryant, Davis, Campsen, Gregory, Grooms, Martin, Massey, Shoopman, Verdin come to mind) come to work and are doing their best to do business in the Senate. Other senators, who affectionately call themselves “the deliberative body,” are not so inclined and find ways with rules and procedures to simply cause movement on vital issues to come to a crawl or complete halt. Every one of you probably knows someone else in another county of South Carolina and I urge you to contact them and let’s push the state Senate to action from all sides.
5. Continuing Quest for Equitable Education Funding: The broken record message that Beaufort County is a donor county and that doling out education dollars based on property tax values continues to be the order of the day. We made small strides last year when the State House budget pushed away from the “EFA formula” in budget line items and placing “per pupil weighted unit” in its place. But the Senate finance committee did not allow it to remain and the Beaufort delegation had to drop back to “Plan B”, a Senate one-year proviso which allotted a minimal payment of funds to any district not receiving any EFA funding (only Beaufort). With the backing of the Beaufort County Council and the school board, we will continue this work in reforming our state’s antiquated education funding system.
Port Issues: The Army Corps of Engineers recently held a public meeting about its harbor deepening study, giving the public an opportunity to comment and ask questions about the harbor deepening study. With the Panama Canal expansion set to be completed in 2014, East Coast ports will be open to larger ships that require deeper drafts. About 80% of the ships on order now are post-Panamax, meaning they are too large to fit through the canal today. Experts say South Carolina’s deepening project will drive economic investment and jobs in the state.
In light of the SC DHEC permit allowing the Savannah Port to dredge, I have asked for a meeting with the governor to discuss the ramification of this decision on the Jasper Ocean Terminal. I am deeply troubled by her role in asking DHEC to hear this issue again and the lack of regard for the South Carolina Maritime Commission. Particular concerns are the spoil from the dredging being dumped on the Jasper Ocean Terminal site for the next 50 years and the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers did not consider the Jasper Ocean Terminal as an alternative to the Savannah Port’s dredging since the former would require far less environmental impact. I will share information as I receive it and look for a meeting on this in early January.