Thursday, January 7, 2010

Legislature has more work to do

By Andy Brack

A slogan from an old Virginia Slims cigarette ad – “You’ve come a long way, baby – just doesn’t apply to the South Carolina General Assembly.

But, the legislature took a few positive, progressive baby steps toward dealing with generational problems identified last year in Statehouse Report’s “Palmetto Priorities” list.

A year ago this week as the General Assembly prepared to open its annual session, we offered an agenda of “11 broad, continuing objectives for state legislators to consider and use as a bipartisan guide to creating a better South Carolina.” Why? Because lawmakers often seem to act independently and without a good look at the state’s big picture.

So today, it’s time to look at where they are. You might be surprised. Below is a short description of each objective, followed by a review of progress.

JOBS: Develop a Cabinet-level post dedicated to adding and retaining 10,000 small business jobs per year. Result? No action: Even though the state’s unemployment rate has rocketed to more than 12 percent, there seems to be little consensus or strategizing on how to get more jobs for South Carolina. This needs to be Job Number One in 2010. [Forget Gov. Mark Sanford’s embarrassing woes; work on more jobs.]

EDUCATION: Cut the state’s dropout rate in half by 2015. State Education Department spokesman Jim Foster says these days, educators focus more on graduation rates than dropout rates. (This appears as the flip side of the same coin to us). Interestingly, past policy actions are having incremental progress. According to Education Week magazine’s latest study, South Carolina had the top progress in increasing graduation rates over the last 10 years. Instead of being last in the nation in 1996 with 53.2 percent of students graduating, in 2006, we were 37th in the nation with 66.3 percent graduating. Congratulations.

HEALTH CARE: Increase the cigarette tax to $1 per pack and use revenues to maximize federal health care matching funds. No action. Again. This is a no-brainer. The legislature needs to pass this proposal this year to nab more federal matching health care dollars.

HEALTH CARE: Ensure affordable and accessible health care that optimizes preventive care for every South Carolinian by 2015. No action: While this is more of a federal government issue, the state could start to take more steps, instead of waiting in the wings.

ENVIRONMENT: Adopt a state energy policy that requires energy producers to generate 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Some action: In 2009, Santee Cooper backed off plans to build a new coal-fired plant. Duke and SCANA are moving toward building four more nuclear reactors. The state amended its state energy policy to promote clean energy, which now is defined to include nuclear. More work needs to be done to set measurable goals.

TAXES: By 2012, remove special interest sales tax exemptions that are outdated for the state’s 21st Century economy. Some action: A special legislative committee has been working on this throughout the summer. Look for some action this year.

TAXES: Reform and stabilize the tax structure by 2012 after following an overall nonpartisan review that seriously considers reimplementation of reasonable property taxes. Unfortunately, the committee (above) can’t consider property tax reform from three years ago that caused more harm than good.

ELECTIONS: Increase voter registration to 75 percent by 2015. No action.

CORRECTIONS: Reduce the prison population by 25 percent by 2020 through creative alternative sentencing programs for non-violent offenders. A little action: State Attorney General Henry McMaster’s “middle courts” program is still in legislative committee. It likely would impact prison populations significantly. More work can be done.

ROADS: Strengthen all bridges and upgrade all state roads by 2015 through creative highway financing and maintenance programs. No major action. Mostly, it was business as usual.

POLITICS: Have a vigorous two- or multi-party political system of governance. No action: State Democrats don’t even have candidates in six of the nine statewide constitutional races at this point. Other bills are in the hopper that would increase partisanship, not foster bipartisanship.

Bottom line: South Carolina still has a long way to go, baby – but encouraging signs abound.

Andy Brack, publisher of Statehouse Report, can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.

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