The 2011 legislative session in Columbia starts in just a few weeks, and the list of problems facing state lawmakers is long and complicated.
State unemployment is stuck at 11 percent -- the sixth-worst percentage in the country -- and more than 235,000 South Carolinians are out of work. What can we do to make South Carolina a better place for private business to grow and flourish?
Revenues in the state's general fund declined from a high of $7 billion in 2007 to $5 billion last year, and this coming year there will be only $4 billion available for appropriation. What programs should we cut?
Our state retirement system is an estimated $30 billion short of what it needs to pay its future obligations -- the 11th worst-funded retirement system in the nation. How do we make that fund solvent?
The "off-budget" revenue collected by state agencies soared to an unprecedented $7.76 billion last year and grows each year by double-digit percentages. How can we slow down and reverse the flood of fees, fines and red tape that is choking our private sector and killing jobs?
And the list goes on: making school funding more equitable, requiring on-the-record voting, guarding against federal government mandates, increasing education choices, restructuring our ridiculously inefficient form of government, strengthening anti-illegal immigration measures -- to name just a few. And I am champing at the bit to get back to work.
But before our attention turns completely to Columbia and the redress of state problems, let's pay some mind to an important piece of business in our own backyard. Let's recognize that the nine county and municipal government entities within Beaufort and Jasper counties have recently stated their intent to work together as a region; let's understand how important that really is, and let's set a specific benchmark to make sure it actually happens.
The county and municipal governments within the two counties -- and yes, the counties' elected legislators -- have too often acted independently, as if they were islands, separate from the main. Too often it's been every entity for itself in the fierce struggle for limited state dollars, whether for schools, highways or economic development projects.
I have been involved in state government long enough, in both the executive and legislative branches, to understand this: Greenville-Spartanburg, Columbia and Charleston have critical masses of population and business capital, and such begets political influence and favorable treatment.
By contrast, our area is essentially ignored. Our K-12 schools, technical college and university are grossly underfunded. We are forced to levy local taxes to pay for state highways and bridges. The state commerce department routinely refers business prospects elsewhere.
But simply complaining avails nothing. Our only hope is for the people of Beaufort and Jasper counties -- through their nine government entities, two state senators and five state representatives -- to start speaking with one voice. And to not only talk about "regionalism" in the abstract, but to actually unite behind specific projects.
And here's an obvious one: the new maritime port on the Savannah River in Jasper County. In terms of economic development, there is nothing more important than this port becoming a reality. How important? Well, for one thing, it would have more of an economic impact than the BMW, Michelin and Boeing projects in South Carolina -- combined.
I am a state senator from Beaufort County, and the port would be in Jasper County. So what? Political boundaries don't matter when it comes to economic development of this magnitude, and we need to stop thinking that they do.
There is tremendous momentum for the Jasper port. A business niche has been identified, one that complements, and does not compete with, the heavy-volume container business at existing ports in Charleston and Savannah. And I've recently met with private investors eager to invest hundreds of millions of dollars of their capital to develop a port that chases shipping business now handled by smaller-tier ports like Florida's Port Everglades, Fernandina and Jacksonville, and Pascagoula, Miss.
But there are two assurances that these private companies want before investing their money. First, they want a specific timeline from the Corps of Engineers on the release of its spoil easement from the port site. The corps has already been directed by Congress to release that easement, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is working with the corps on the timeline.
Second, they want to know when the South Carolina Department of Transportation will fund three highway projects critical to the Jasper port: a 6.6-mile widening of U.S. 17, a 7.4-mile realignment of U.S. 17 and a new interchange on I-95 near mile marker three. All three of these projects are already on the DOT's capital improvement projects list, but a sense of urgency on their completion is currently lacking.
For the first time in 18 years, we have one of our own -- Sun City Hilton Head resident Craig Forrest -- on the DOT's seven-member commission. Forrest has told me that if the elected officials from the nine government entities in Beaufort and Jasper counties, along with the two state senators and five state representatives from those counties, started showing up at DOT meetings and saying, with one voice, that these highway projects were the region's No. 1 priority, then we would have an excellent chance of having them prioritized.
This is where regionalism can make the difference and change our economic landscape forever. Do we have the political will to get the job done?