S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Jan. 15, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.0115.bank.htm


Infrastructure banks weaken process, but provide solutions
By Andy Brack
Publisher
SC Statehouse Report

JAN. 15, 2006 - - As lawmakers this year again ponder restructuring to achieve efficiencies and avoid duplication, they're also creating new kinds of structures that allow services to be delivered - - in spite of these very same lawmakers.

In 1997, the General Assembly approved creation of the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank, in part as a way of bringing big highway and bridge infrastructure projects to fruition quickly instead of saving years to pay for them. To date, the bank has funded about $2 billion in projects, such as the new Cooper River Bridge, the Carolina Bays Parkway in Horry County and widening of SC 170 in Beaufort County. Without the bank, those projects might still be pipe dreams.

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More recently, state lawmakers approved another bank, the Conservation Bank, to allow a separate board to buy and preserve important state lands by leveraging $10 million of annual state money. The program has worked as shown in key tracts secured from the Jocassee Gorges area of the Upstate to thousands of acres along the Cooper River north of Charleston.

Now there's a proposal for a Rural Infrastructure Bank by non-metro lawmakers who want the state to use a new process to steer state money to build water and sewer projects needed for rural areas to grow. And in the coming weeks, key lawmakers will propose an Education Infrastructure Bank to direct money to poor and rural school districts to help them replace crumbling facilities because local tax bases aren't deep enough for structural investments.

So while political rhetoric around Columbia is spinning about the need to consolidate programs and departments, what's going on with the quiet, insistent use of special banks and boards to accomplish specific kinds of projects?

In one sense, it's a legacy of the partisan bickering that has increased over the years. You might remember the US Congress created the Base Realignment and Closure Commission years back to take the politics out of the base closure process. But the move had a beneficial political ramification - - it took the heat off congressmen and senators when ''someone else'' - - commissioners appointed by them and the president - - voted to close the bases. Structurally, however, the mere existence of the commission was proof Congress had gotten so political over base closure that it was ineffective and couldn't do its job.

These new state project banks seem to have similar positive and negative aspects. On one hand, the banks provide the state with more flexibility and allow needed projects to get done, according to Ellen Saltzman of the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson University. But because they are funded by earmarked appropriations, they take away money from the state's General Fund. In turn, that could be bad for programs funded by formulas, such as some local government programs.

''If you take this money out of the General Fund, you reduce the base from which other things are calculated,'' she noted.

SC House Minority Leader Harry Ott, the Calhoun County Democrat who is pushing the Rural Infrastructure Bank idea, said he believed infrastructure banks helped take a lot of politics out of the process, which could help rural areas that are more and more beholden to metro and suburban legislative power.

''It's a more efficient way to make sure the funds are spent where the needs are because if you leave it up to the votes on the floor of the House, small, rural counties will never win.''

It's much easier, for example to make a case to a small board of a few commissioners who have a pot of money to help rural interests than it does to have to get full legislative approval for every single rural project, Ott said.

So whether it's a bank that provides funding for roads that lawmakers can't agree on, water lines for rural areas that they won't fund, school buildings in poor areas or land for conservation, the new state funding banks make a lot of sense because they get things done in spite of lawmakers.

But very existence of these banks may be proof positive that legislators might be losing some power. These days, perhaps, if you really want to get something done, the Legislature might not be the best place to do it.

lighter side
1/15: Bugging the buggers

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:

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feedback
1/10: Rising sales taxes irk retailer

I am a motorcycle-ATV dealer in Florence and I am bewildered by the fact that more small business people have not attacked the issue of increasing sales taxes (state and local).

Retailers, except auto, which seem to have the Legislature by the "___", are fighting the loss of business to out-of-state sales where taxes are not paid. ATVs are not taxed in NC and Tennessee, for example. We cannot compete. Check out the Bike Trader online and see dealers in other states advertise no sales tax to SC customers.

-- Rusty Davis, Florence, SC

1/9: Agree on tobacco tax

To the editor:

I agree with increasing SC tobacco tax [Commentary, 1/8]. I also think that only non-smokers should be eligible for the Medicare and Medicaid programs and that both programs should offer free "Stop Smoking" plans in order to ease the stress of those smokers who wish to become eligible.

-- Bob Logan, Little River, SC

1/7: Welcome to Ausband

To the editor:

It is wonderful to see a seasoned veteran such as Jerry [Ausband] back in action with his insightful voice.

-- Becky Billingsly, Myrtle Beach, SC

Recent feedback:


scorecard

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political news items from the past week:

Thumbs up

Confederate documents. Thomas Willcox of Seabrook Island, whose family has owned an estimated $2.4 million in Civil War documents since the burning of Columbia, has won his ownership from the State of South Carolina that claimed the documents for its own. It's plumb ridiculous that the state plans to appeal, and never mind that the problem is that Willcox is in bankruptcy. He needs to auction off the documents, including some signed by Civil War notables in South Carolina. The documents belong to Willcox; it's worth stacking up Palmetto logs around his home to protect it.

Marsh islands. The Department of Health and Environmental Control put the emphasis on the latter part of its name this past week by deciding to eliminate any new bridges to small, unspoiled islands in marshes and waterways. The only problem is that the rules cannot become permanent until the General Assembly acts. But it should act soon. And after that, the owners can paddle their way to their island land.

In the middle

Interstate 73. Farmer Wayne Hardwick of western Horry County really feels stuck right in the middle. We understand: ``It'll ruin my livelihood if it comes by. I've worked hard for what I've got and I don't want it taken away." He opposes one of the undecided routes for the proposed Interstate 73, but that highway would be in the first to run to the No. 1 or No. 2 resort in the United States, Myrtle Beach. Maybe an overpass?

Thumbs down

Male drivers. To males in general and to them and other drivers in York, Horry, Anderson, Richland and Lexington counties: A Bronx cheer, and the loss of many dollars, we hope. Males led female drivers in being ticketed for not wearing seatbelts, and all drivers in the five cited counties led the rest of the state in tickets after Dec. 9, when the new mandatory seatbelt law went into effect.

Ridiculous! Two state senators, Democrat Phil Leventis of Sumter and Republican Jake Knotts of Lexington want to give motorcyclists the right to run red lights because the aluminum on their bikes doesn't trip sensors in the roadway that control the lights. So what! If a motorcycle would simply get behind a vehicle, there would be no problem. Either that, or start wearing helmets again.


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Just a quick note to let you know how you missed out this week. If you were a subscriber to the paid edition of Statehouse Report, you would have received the information below on Friday AND you would have gotten other special features:

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  • LEGISLATIVE AGENDA: The state pledge
  • RADAR SCREEN: More school add-ons
  • PALMETTO POLITICS: Tallon's back in town
  • BLOGROLL: From this week's blogs
  • TALLY SHEET: More about newly-introduced bills
  • MEGAPHONE: Two for the Catawbas

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