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District 108: Candidates talk about the issues

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Infrastructure | Environment | Education | Health | Tax reform

Republican Stephen Goldfinch is seeking a second term as District 108 representative to the South Carolina House. He was unopposed in 2012 when he first ran for the office. He is a lawyer in Murrells Inlet.

Democrat Vida Miller served as the representative from District 108 in the South Carolina House from 1996 to 2010 when she was defeated by Republican newcomer Kevin Ryan. She owns an art gallery in Pawleys Island.

Infrastructure: The current state transportation plan shows a $1.7 billion annual shortfall in funding. Outline a solution to this problem that you would support.

GOLDFINCH: The Infrastructure Committee seems to be focussed on cutting waste in the Department of Transportation to try and solve that $1.7 billion shortfall. They are trying to find all the fat in DOT, and once we get it to a billion dollars or less then we are going to start talking about solutions. I’m sure a gas tax is going to be on the table. I just don’t think a gas tax is going to work. I don’t think it’s going to pass. The governor is going to veto it. Why spend a year or more debating this thing? I introduced a bill last year that would raise $40-to-$50 million. That’s a drop in the bucket, but if you do it 10 times, or 20 times, you come up with the amount of money you need. Every project is different but those are the sorts of projects we have to start thinking about. I think we need to start thinking about imposing an additional penalty on DUI, DUS and six-point offenses or higher. We need to start licensing trailers — exempt farmers to get it passed — and licensing golf carts. They have become the automobile for the retiree around here. We tried to do something with golf carts in the past, and it backfired because we tried to limit their scope. That was a mistake. Let’s give municipality and county police the ability to track who owns that vehicle. At the end of the day it also would raise money for the highway fund. Raising the cap on the car sales tax would be one of the tougher sells. I’m not sure a Ferrari dealership is going to be influenced by a thousand or fifteen hundred dollar sales tax if somebody is coming in to buy a $300,000 car. Auto dealers have a little heartburn over that issue. I understand that. At the end of the day we have to start making tough decisions here.

MILLER: Nobody likes more new taxes. I don’t like more new taxes. What has to be done without further delay is the General Assembly, both sides of the aisle, and the governor’s office have to come together to address this and have the political fortitude to say that we can find a solution. There are a lot of things out there from imposing more user fees — they are taxes in disguise — to a straight up gas tax increase. I have always been open to options, but we need a statewide solution, not just a bit here and a bit here. That’s what’s gotten us where we are now, nibbling away at it, putting band-aids on a problem. We are the eighth largest highway system in the country with a gasoline tax among the lowest. Ten or 15 years ago when a secondary road was paved it was turned over to DOT. Now when a road is paved, it goes automatically back into that county’s system unless it is a state road. Of course, the county has assessed everybody with a user fee and has a referendum up to pave roads. The problem is a trickle-down effect. It’s a statewide problem, but it’s a local problem too.

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Education: What do you believe is wrong with education in South Carolina, and what would you do in the legislature to fix it?

GOLDFINCH: I’ll point out two or three things that I find to be really problematic. The first is that only 44 cents of every dollar gets into the classroom. The majority goes into bureaucracy. Spartanburg County has six school districts with superintendents making over $200,000 apiece. Consolidation is tough. I understand the mentality. There are ways to work around that problem without paying bureaucrats the millions of dollars we are paying them. That’s problem No. 1: cut administration and focus on kids and teachers. They make eduction; bureaucrats don’t. No. 2: start working on workforce development. Eduction would be better in South Carolina if we had workforce development programs in the education system. Identify these kids in ninth, 10th, 11th grade who are good with their hands but are not suited for a four-year education. Don’t strap them with $125,000 in debt with a liberal arts history degree they are never going to use. Let’s pick these kids out who are really good at pipe fitting and welding and plane building — whatever it might be — and start doing workforce development and put them into the programs where they can be successful down the line. No. 3: the primary years. We have to start getting away from things of the past that are obviously not working in South Carolina. Things of the future are like the Palmetto Academy of Motor Sports. Those kids come out with almost a 100 percent rate of job placement. That’s incredible. Specialized charter schools with vocational tracks have been successful: Greenville with BMW and Charleston with Boeing. School choice needs to be expanded. We did a good job of expanding it but to a very small population of kids that need additional help. We are going to see that school choice effort last year was successful. The preliminary numbers are good. We are going to see that it’s made a huge difference and give that option to all parents.

Four-year-old kindergarten and pre-K had problems last year. Numbers that came back showed they were not doing as well as they had predicted. The theory was that pre-K and 4-year-old kindergarten would produce kids who would read earlier and be school-ready. In fact, some of the kids who went to pre-K did worse. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but that’s true. The bottom line is that Columbia has to see results in order to keep putting money into it. At least that’s the way it should be. Last year didn’t show us results. We made concessions and funded it anyway. If pre-K and that crowd don’t show significant results this year, they are going to have a hard time coming up with money for a third year.

MILLER: In the past eight or 10 years there has been an enormous amount of time spent on crippling the public education system. We’ve had voucher debates, charter school debates, choice debates — all these debates over and over again. My record clearly proves that I’m a strong advocate for public education. I was very pleased to be a part of this community that decided to build Waccamaw High School. I was on the school board when we did that. We can see in this community what public education has done. We have four fine schools in this area. I’ve always been a big supporter of 4-year-old kindergarten. It ought to be a part of the curriculum. I am positive it will show results. Just in the scaled-down programs we have, we are seeing results.

Hopefully, the new state superintendent will take a hands-on approach to looking at recommendations to the General Assembly on streamlining programs that are redundant, streamlining funding mechanisms for education, and again, it’s almost like our highway system, you ignore something long enough and you create problems. The way our schools are funded is always a concern with the disparity between rich counties and poor counties, the redundancy in programs and unfunded mandates. The debacle with No Child Left Behind is an example. I was a co-sponsor and worked on The Education Accountability Act that set a standard that was higher in South Carolina for school improvement than No Child Left Behind. We were working on measurable assessments in our school districts. Then No Child Left Behind came into place and superseded state law. We had to scrap what we were doing and comply with federal law with no funding. That was an unfunded federal mandate when our standards were higher. South Carolina was penalized at the end of the day because we had gone from zero to 50, then we had to go from 50 to 100. We had accomplished the easy part and because we were in the hard part, we were penalized by No Child Left Behind. Then it was scrapped. It’s a pattern South Carolina has fallen into since days I was on the school board. I hope the superintendent of education will say, No more. We will give programs and assessments in our schools time to have measurable results. Give something at least five years so you can see if it works. Funding does not fix all of the problems. But the school funding formula is a very complicated one and certainly does not need to go another year without being addressed by leaders from around the state sitting down and discussing what’s better way for our schools. There’s not a quick fix, but there are practical solutions that we could look at that could be a cost savings and more effective. The key to growth is having a good educated workforce, and companies look at those kids coming out of schools and say we can hire them. Gov. Fritz Hollings brought technical colleges to South Carolina. Democrats recognized there was a gap between high school and four-year colleges, and we have one of the best technical college systems thanks to Gov. Hollings. In my service in the House, I’m the only legislator awarded two years consecutively the S.C. Legislator of the Year from the S.C. School Administrators Association.

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Environment: How can the state balance the environment and economic development in offshore oil and gas exploration?

GOLDFINCH: All the geologists say every bit of the natural resources we have — there appears to be no oil; it’s all natural gas — is 60 miles offshore. I don’t care what high-rise you get in, you are not going to see it 60 miles offshore. As far as jeopardizing tourism, that’s a lost cause on their part. But I will say this: I would not support it if it was within eyesight of the shore. We have a tremendous tourism economy here. We can’t do anything to jeopardize it. If they need to put it 15 miles offshore or further, that’s what they have to do if they want to come to South Carolina. We’ve got a main gas line that terminates at the Georgetown port. That’s a tremendous opportunity to tap into that. The federal government has permitted us for seismic testing. If they find what they think is offshore, Georgetown is the perfect port for operations. I visited Louisiana and saw a working well. Shrimpers were happy. Clammers were happy. We fished all around oil and gas rigs. I didn’t see any problems out there. This whole idea that seismic testing is going to kill all the dolphins: I saw dolphins swimming around the boat doing seismic testing in Louisiana.

In the fishing industry, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has been a problem since the very beginning. Thankfully, the governor has made a couple good decisions lately, appointing Chris Conklin from Murrells Inlet, Seven Seas, and Mark Brown from Mount Pleasant. Both of those guys are fishing advocates. The previous guys on there were environmental zealots who simply wanted to close fishing down. I think we are heading in the right direction, but we’ve got to keep the momentum going. I introduced bills in 2012 and ’13 fighting the federal government and giving South Carolina its own limits, rules and regulations for black sea bass, for instance. Black sea bass is a multi-million dollar industry in South Carolina, but SAFMC said we have to take this away, have to manage this resource. All their science comes from the east coast of Florida where anybody can drive their kayak out there and catch fish on a reef. The east coast of Florida is a very poor fishery compared to what we do. We actually have to get on boats and travel a distance. They weren’t using “best science” and we took the cautious step of using federalism to say give us this species and we will regulate it ourselves. DNR stepped forward to say we’ll take it. I introduced the limits, and now we have a year-round black sea bass season in South Carolina and the federal government has stepped away. If we had left it alone, we’d have no black sea bass fishing, and that industry would have been gone.

MILLER: My record as someone who cares about our environment and our natural resources can be quickly proven. I believe that what we have in South Carolina, from the mountains to the coast, is unique and rich in natural resources. Tourism is the No. 1 business in the state. The business community over the years has worked very hard to promote and protect the tourism industry realizing our natural resources are our best resources. As we move forward into this discussion of seismic testing and offshore drilling — what’s that going to do to the economy and what kind of jobs will it bring in — I will rely on the best science we have available to look at this issue and ultimately move cautiously. I want to make sure that as we go through this process we have covered every angle out there.

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Health: How can the legislature help hospitals that are failing financially because of the state’s decision to reject Medicaid expansion?

GOLDFINCH: We need to fund rural hospitals in jeopardy of closing. That’s the bottom line. There are ways to do that without taking Medicaid expansion dollars, and we actually did it last year. We pumped a bunch of money into rural hospitals to keep them from closing. We also instituted tele-medicine, putting $9 million in last year — in order to help little hospitals that don’t have a stroke ward or don’t have whatever. Now we are doing tele-medicine with the Medical University where we are beaming out doctors and it looks like it’s going to be a tremendous success. We actually coordinated with Dr. Gerry Harmon on this issue. We came up with a solution, and we funded it. That’s going to be the way of the future. The option for us was not an option: raise taxes or cut providers in order to take Medicaid expansion dollars and that was not something we thought was right for South Carolina so we turned that money down. But there are consequences to every action, and the consequences are that rural hospitals are going to have problems and we are going to have to come up with a solution for that. The solution is to fund them the best we can and provide tele-medicine to get those patients in rural areas real help.

MILLER: I talked to someone in the last month where they are pretty sure their hospital is going to close. We are looking at situations where our hospital has always had an open door for indigent care, and according to the officials at the hospital, they are looking at starting to charge everyone coming through the emergency room a minimum fee. We are currently sending millions of dollars to Washington, and we are not getting anything back. I think it’s wrong and it’s unsustainable. How we keep hospital doors open and keep health-care services available to all our citizens will be huge questions. It’s going to be up to the General Assembly to sit down, roll up their sleeves and find a solution to this problem. I will work with anyone on this, from the governor’s office on down. When there’s not a willingness to sit down and discuss this, nothing is going to get done. That’s what I’m bringing to the table. I’m open-minded enough to know there’s a segment in the community that’s fighting it even though we are one of the most federally dependent states in the nation. We need to work on a solution that our health-care providers can accept, the General Assembly members can accept and is something to help people without health insurance and those of us who are paying extra premiums. It’s a horrible problem to have. I bring a willingness to sit down and work on a solution. Other states that opted out are doing something. We’ve got to do something too. Let’s not leave those 350,000 people out there who are uninsured and not getting health care they need. If we had not had good insurance when my husband had pancreatic cancer, we would have probably lost everything we had. One catastrophic illness can take everything you have, leave families homeless and put them on government subsidies. It’s a very disturbing problem.

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Tax reform: The 2006 tax reform measures known as Act 388 limited the ability of local government and school districts to raise revenue at the same time they have created inequities in who pays for services. How will you work to make the state’s tax system more fair and effective?

GOLDFINCH: We either need to repeal Act 388 or strongly amend it. We can’t continue doing what we are doing. People understand it’s not fair to business, not fair to out-of-staters, it’s just not fair. We’ve got to come up with an alternative solution that provides consistency of funding throughout. Act 388 seemed like a great idea at the time. It’s not a good idea. We have to address the 4 percent and 6 percent property tax. I ushered property tax reduction specifically targeted to Pawleys Island. Those people needed tax reform. That issue would never have been there if we didn’t have this divided 4 percent, 6 percent. Personally, I think we need to go 4 percent across the board, or maybe 5 percent, but this whole idea of discouraging second homes is a bad idea with a 6 percent tax. I know people with $25,000 tax bills. What do you do about that? Realtors say people go over the border to North Carolina. Our tax system as a whole is a problem because we have so many exemptions. I’ll give you an example. St. Christopher’s here in Georgetown County has to pay a sales tax in order to give children’s clothes away. If they were selling children’s clothing they would get an exemption. That’s just one example of how backward our tax system is, and that’s because special interests have put exemption after exemption in there over the years. We could solve all those problems with a Fair Tax, a consumption tax. I know it’s scary to everybody, getting ourselves off the income tax. Forty percent of our budget is based on income tax. It’s consistent. I know it’s scary, but at the end of the day the numbers are there. People understand that a consumption tax would fund state government. It’s there. It’s fair. It’s called a Fair Tax for a reason. We are living in a tourist state. It would work, and we’d get away from the hundreds of exemptions out there. You might be able to raise more money. I think a Fair Tax is a great way to go, but eliminating the income tax is going to be an uphill battle. We can do whatever makes sense. We don’t have to have politically expedient ideas. We can do things that actually work.

MILLER: In 2004, the property tax relief act that was my legislation was rolled into Act 388. It was necessary to provide some property tax relief. Property taxes were going off the charts. I worked on that bill for two years that capped reassessment every five years. It did a lot of things that were well-intended, but two reassessments later it has created some problems. We had a $300 million shortfall in the state budget almost as soon as it passed. School districts used up their reserves to cover basic costs. Some things worked extremely well when times were good and extremely poorly when times were bad. There’s no in-between. Act 388 seems to be one of those. We have smart minds in South Carolina that understand our tax code. We’ve got the resources to come up with some better answers, but if you don’t have the political fortitude to go to Columbia and stand up for something, nothing is going to be done. I am willing to take this issue with Act 388 and do whatever we need to do. If we eliminated less than half of the special interest sales tax exemptions we could lower tax rates to where South Carolina would be one of the 10 states with the lowest sales taxes.

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