South Carolina likes to bill itself as one of the most military-friendly states in the country. But the Palmetto State trails its neighbors when it comes to legislation to make life easier for active-duty service members and more attractive to retirees -- a deficiency that could have a big impact on an industry that pumps $15.7 billion into the state's economy each year.
The U.S. Department of Defense lists 10 pieces of legislation dealing with military quality-of-life issues that it would like states to adopt -- a list that will be used by the Pentagon when the next round of base realignments and closures, or BRAC, is considered, perhaps as soon as 2015.
Virginia leads nearby states, having passed seven of the 10 laws. Florida has adopted six of the measures; North Carolina, five; and, Georgia, four.
South Carolina trails the pack with three.
But that could change soon, as three more initiatives on the list are winding their way through the legislature, with seemingly enough momentum to pass.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he and fellow members of the S.C. Military Base Task Force are working to introduce the four remaining bills by the beginning of next month.
"My goal is to make sure the state is '10 for 10' on the quality-of-life bills," he said. "Our area's military installations are the best in the country, and I am confident they will survive BRAC scrutiny on their merits."
The list deals with such issues as granting in-state college tuition, transferring training certification and property-tax relief.
"Most of them don't cost anything," said William "Dutch"' Holland, executive coordinator of the S.C. Military Base Task Force, appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to protect the state's bases from future BRACs. "They are really about quality of life."
The three quality-of-life bills that have passed the S.C. General Assembly are designed to improve absentee voting, increase protections for military personnel against predatory lending, and ease rules for military spouses transferring professional licenses from other states.
Three more bills on the Defense Department's quality-of-life list appear headed toward passage:
- Granting licensing and academic credit for military training.
- Eliminating the one-year waiting time for in-state tuition for service members leaving the military.
- Establishing veterans' treatment courts in each county, which would steer veterans charged with nonviolent offenses into care and counseling for their underlying conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, instead of jail.
LOCAL LEADERS OPTIMISTIC
Local legislators and base supporters are confident that Beaufort County and the state will be well-prepared for the next BRAC.
Jon Rembold, member of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee, said he and other local base supporters aren't worried about the military-friendly legislation passing.
"We have no reason to think they won't be successful," Rembold said.
Several factors point to favorable outcomes for the military installations in the county, which survived the 2006 round of BRAC cuts unscathed, particularly for Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Rembold said the air station's efficiency in training pilots is one key reason the local installations stand out.
"We have dedicated air space nearby, and the Townsend Bombing Range is 70 miles south in Georgia," he said. "Pilots can conduct multiple training exercises on a single tank of fuel and refuel on the ground. There's an exponential difference in cost when compared to bases in other areas of the country that have to put a tanker in the air."
MCAS Beaufort is also scheduled to be the new home of several squadrons of the F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter by early next year. Construction of the facilities set to house the aircraft and train pilots is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.
"The air station being the training hub for the F-35Bs is a gigantic advantage going into the BRAC sessions, and it cannot be stated enough," Rembold said.
State Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, points to the transfer-of-development rights program the county and air station worked out to protect the base from development encroachment.
"The TDR program is now a model for other military installations around the country to use," Newton said. "We've been an inviting place from a land-use perspective, and the military is intertwined with our culture and our history."
Newton, who was chairman of the Beaufort County Council during the last round of BRAC cuts in 2006, called the military's presence in the county and state "incredibly significant."
"We've got to continue to do work to make our state military-friendly," he said.
"The military is tied to the fabric of Beaufort County," he added. "The economic impact of the military installations is almost $1.4 billion. It rivals the impact Hilton Head's tourism industry has on the local economy."
The (Columbia) State staff writer Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this article.