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South Carolina State Senator Shane Massey held a Town Hall meeting Thursday, Oct. 24, at the Edgefield County Council Chambers where he met with concerned citizens to review the last session of the SC Senate and previewed items he believes will be “hot on the agenda for 2014.” Of the recap of the previous term, Sen. Massey highlighted 5 “big issues” with which the Senate dealt. The first item listed by Sen. Massey was the extension on the free credit monitoring offered to SC residents whose information was compromised in the 2012 hacking of the SC tax records. As Sen. Massey explained, the original providers of the free credit monitoring, Experian, wished to raise their cost for the service from $12 million to $20 million a year. This figure far exceeded the $8.5 million appropriated for the continued service, so a new contract was sent out for bid. A Texas based company, CSID, won the contract which is good for one year but has the option for renewal for up to 4 years. Since the extent of this security breach cannot fully be realized at this time, Sen. Massey said in regards to the state’s offering of a free identity protection program, “I suspect we’re going to be doing this a while.” (For more information on this free service, see our related story.)
Infrastructure was another key issue Sen. Massey mentioned as moving forward in the Senate this past session. Sen. Massey said that since he took office this topic has seen a “whole lot of talking but not a whole lot doing.” This session, however, Sen. Massey said there was “a big push” to increase fees (such as driver’s license fees) and to raise the gas tax and index it to inflation. Sen. Massey, though, along with a hand full of other senators, put together a counter-plan to use part of the nearly $400 million surplus from this year to put toward the state’s infrastructure needs. This is a precedent setting move as never before in the history of SC has general fund money been used to fund infrastructure; it is typically funded from the state’s gas tax. By the time bonded money and the additional $91 million the House added to the measure was accounted for, the result was that an approximate $900 million was approved for usage on the state’s roads and bridges. This accomplishment is not without a possible gray cloud, however. As Sen. Massey explained, the measure was “sold” to the Senate because the money was to be used throughout the entire state; not just in the Charleston area where infrastructure money typically gets allocated. However, since the money is being held by the state’s infrastructure bank and not the Department of Transportation (due to the DOT not having the necessary bonding ability) and the fact that the bank is not obligated to follow the desires of the Senate in regard to the money’s allocation, and since the infrastructure bank is heavily represented in the low country, there is concern the money will not be evenly shared throughout the state and will again end up being spent primarily in the Charleston area. Sen. Massey said if this happens, “I don’t think you’ll see anymore infrastructure money coming out,” because the necessary votes will be lost due to the manipulation of the system. Sen. Massey also cautioned the infrastructure issue is not going away as the DOT says the state is $29 million under-funded for the next 20 years. As a result, Sen. Massey said the push to raise fees and the gas tax and to index it to inflation will remain. “That debate’s coming,” he said, adding it is a “tough issue” as the state’s needs far exceed our revenue from the gas tax. He reminded constituents that SC has the 3rd lowest gas tax in the nation and that it has not increased since 1986. Of the expected debates, Sen. Massey said, “I think they are good discussions to have. We’ve neglected it for a while.”
In another money related issue, Sen. Massey explained that the Senate was able to budget $25 million to go toward the purchase of new school buses. Sen. Massey said this is a matter which he has been pursuing for the past 3 years, relating how some of the state’s school buses are 25 years old and how the state has been purchasing used school buses from other states to replace their aging fleet. The money to purchase these new vehicles came from unclaimed lottery winnings. Sen. Massey said he was “proud to have been part of this fight” adding that children should not be riding on buses that are 25 years old.
In what he called a “big step for school choice,” Sen. Massey explained that a provision was added to the budget that will now allow a certain amount of money to be set aside to be used as a tax credit for contributions toward scholarships for special needs children who can use those scholarships to attend specialty schools. The measure was patterned after a similar program in Georgia, and Sen. Massey said the program has had success in that state as well as in Louisiana and Florida; the program continues to expand to other states. Sen. Massey said this current provision only focuses on special needs children, but if it works, it could have broader implications in the area of school choice in the future.
While Sen. Massey said the issue to expand Medicaid in SC failed in the Senate by 5 votes (the House rejected it along party lines), he cautioned, “That fight’s not going away.” Saying, “I think it’s a bad idea,” Sen. Massey said the debate will continue as long as the Affordable Care Act is on the table. Sen. Massey said that, for him, “eligibility is the big deal” with the program’s expansion. As is now stands, to be eligible for Medicaid, one must either be under 18, over 65, or have some sort of recognizable disability. However, Sen. Massey contends Obama Care would make Medicaid a completely different program by requiring the state to offer coverage to able-bodied adults. Sen. Massey said “It’s a bad policy to give free stuff to able-bodied, non-disabled adults.” Sen. Massey added that even under the current program there is limited flexibility with no incentives; it is all free. “[This] sets a bad policy,” he said. He reminded those present that only a few years ago SC faced a quarter of a billion dollars deficit in the Medicaid program. While Sen. Massey said that roughly half of all the children born in SC are born into Medicaid, he maintained it is actually the over 65 population and nursing home care “that’s killing us.” And, he reminded, as SC has a large aging population, “That’s not going to change anytime soon.”
Although Sen. Massey felt a lot did get accomplished in the latest session in the Senate, he did not sound optimistic about a lot getting done in 2014. In fact, given that the entire House of Representatives and state-wide offices are up for re-election, Sen. Massey predicted that the 2014 term, which is scheduled to run from January through June, will actually only last about 6 weeks “if that.” Sen. Massey said that because of the politics, practically speaking, the next term will be done by mid-February. Because of that, any “big stuff” will be seen early in the session. A couple of the big issues Sen. Massey expects to see brought before the Senate early in the session include restructuring and ethics reform. As to restructuring, which centers primarily on the Budget and Control Board, Sen. Massey said this matter is already “pretty far along” with both Houses and expects that if an agreement can be reached before the session begins, this issue will most likely be passed. Sen. Massey said restructuring would allow for a better checks and balance system but did concede if it is not done quickly, it will fall quickly to politics.
As for ethics reform, Sen. Massey said there is a perception, due to the way each House of Congress is set up to be responsible for its own members (again, a part of the checks and balances), that “we tend to protect our own.” However, there are Governor-backed discussions to establish an independent investigating committee. Sen. Massey said that if this issue is not resolved by the legislature, it will probably become an issue in the governor’s race.
Before closing his meeting, Sen. Massey did discuss topics of interest to those present. The growth of industry and its link to education was one such topic covered, and Sen. Massey complemented the state’s technical schools and their importance in bringing industry into the state by readying the work force. It was agreed, however, that there is a need “to bring more businesses into the schools” so students can see what jobs are available. In a related school matter, Sen. Massey did say that, in regards to redistricting the Edgefield County School Board, “There’s gonna have to be some changes made.” Sen. Massey said he hopes to have some real progress made in this area before his next town hall meeting. He added any changes need to be made “sooner rather than later” due to upcoming elections. The state’s property tax on second homes was also mentioned, but Sen. Massey was not as optimistic as his constituent who felt changes would be made in this area. Currently, residential homes are assessed at 4% and are allotted a school operating credit. However, second homes are assessed at 6% and are not afforded the credit. Sen. Massey said due to the overlapping entities involved in this issue, the state and local municipalities, he did not expect to see any changes made in regards to these taxes.
Thursday night’s meeting was the only Town Hall Sen. Massey will be holding in Edgefield County this term. While he said he typically likes to hold 2 meetings during each session in each of the counties he represents, time restraints have made that too difficult this session. However, Sen. Massey still has Town Hall meetings planned in neighboring Saluda and McCormick Counties for those who could not make the Edgefield meeting but do wish to attend one of his gatherings. A list of these meetings can be found at his website.