The 2020 legislative season will be upon us before we know it.
If it is typical, campaign-year bluster will fill rooms as lawmakers clamor for the spotlight to get pet projects passed. Hot-button, controversial issues will suck oxygen out of the Statehouse and waste valuable time.
Let’s pray for an atypical legislative year — one in which officials get real things accomplished. Rather than waste time on meaningless bills, legislators need to get these five things right, once and for all:
» Santee Cooper. The state’s utility, which has provided power and fueled rural development since the Depression, has been under the gun for more than two years since a $9 billion nuclear facility unraveled. In 2020, the utility faces sale to a private company, management takeover by an outside firm or internal reorganization to fix the mess.
Legislators will look at proposals through January and take up the issue. Let’s hope they do the right thing for ratepayers and taxpayers and not dump the investment that they’ve made for generations to get rid of a pesky political cloud. Santee Cooper should remain public.
» Education. Gov. Henry McMaster has proposed a $3,000 raise for the state’s 50,000 public school teachers, in part because of $1.8 billion in extra funds available to the legislator next year. The governor is onto something — that teachers need to be paid more so we stop the talent drain from public schools.
Armed with a big surplus in 2019, lawmakers gave teachers a 4 percent raise, a $159 million expenditure that was the largest investment in teachers in three decades. Normally, legislators would give each other a high-five and move to something else in 2020. But these aren’t normal times. Teachers need more pay. Students need fewer standardized tests. Rural schools need building improvements. Classrooms need to be smaller. The education funding formula needs attention. in 2020, lawmakers must spend more time on education to get it right so we can get out of the national basement.
» Offshore drilling. Once and for all, South Carolina legislators need to adopt legislation to protect our coast from exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas. Not only would underwater testing booms for fuel critically harm the already-threatened northern right whale, but South Carolina’s tourist economy can’t sustain a Deepwater Horizon-type accident that could devastate the state’s 8,000 miles of marsh shoreline.
» Tax reform. The state’s big surplus and extra revenue likely will fuel politically expedient discussions about giving money back to taxpayers, which would be little more than an election year bribe. What lawmakers really need to do is get serious about comprehensive tax reform, not change of an income tax bracket here or a sales tax break there. They’ve talked for years about fixing tax exemptions and rebalancing income, sales and other taxes. Nibbling around the edges won’t create what’s really needed — a broader base with lower rates to provide more stability over the long term.
» Workforce development. The legislature needs to give some significant love to something that just hasn’t been on the front burner — making sure students are ready for the 21st-century workplace. More attention and money need to be spent strategically to ensure education stretches beyond 12th grade into technical colleges so students have fine-tuned skills to get jobs. Lawmakers need to start thinking of education as a K-14 thing, not a K-12 thing.
If our state elected officials want extra credit, there’s a laundry list of more they could do to make South Carolina more competitive:
» Fix poverty. Too many people are still living in conditions that are unacceptable.
» Expand Medicaid. Too many people don’t have affordable access to good health care.
» Invest in infrastructure. There are billions of dollars of deferred maintenance projects at state buildings and universities.
» Help small business. While known as the driver of economies, the state’s small businesses don’t get enough policy attention.
» Cut the prison population. Develop more alternative sentencing methods for nonviolent offenders so we can stop warehousing so many lawbreakers and save money.
South Carolina legislators should abandon typical election-year tomfoolery. Get things that work done. Yes, it will be hard. But public service isn’t supposed to be easy.