THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
Legislature: Lawmakers regret education isn’t on the agenda
By Emily Topper
House and Senate members had different ideas about what the hot topics would be in the 2018 legislative session, but they agreed on one thing: education, yet again, wasn’t on the priority list.
“Last year I said, ‘I think it’s going to be education, finally, it’s going to be education,’ ” Sen. Stephen Goldfinch said. “And guess what? It’s not going to be education. I was wrong. I hate that I’m wrong, because that is absolutely something we have to do. It’s imperative that we fix our education system in South Carolina.”
Goldfinch, along with Sen. Ronnie Sabb and Reps. Carl Anderson and Lee Hewitt, addressed constituent concerns last week at a legislative breakfast sponsored by the Association of Realtors and the Chamber of Commerce. While roads topped the to-do list of last year’s session, this year’s focus will center around Santee Cooper and the state’s nuclear crisis, Goldfinch said.
“We’re governing by crisis,” he said. “The general assembly has ADD like you wouldn’t believe. We have a very hard time doing more than one big thing in a session. Every year we govern by crisis, and this year it’s the nuclear crisis – SCANA, Santee Cooper, Dominion. It hurts my heart to know that we’re kicking that education can down the road for one more year.”
The state-owned utility has a debt of about $7 billion. Virginia-based Dominion Energy has agreed to buy SCANA Corp., but the company isn’t interested in buying Santee Cooper. Gov. Henry McMaster has backed the idea of selling the plant, but representatives find a potential sale to be problematic.
“I see no benefit to the state or Georgetown County,” Hewitt said. “Volvo would not be in Berkeley County if it were not for Santee Cooper and the rate deal they cut. When you look at economic development, the rates that we pay locally and jobs for the area, to me it does not make sense. We need to help them work through it and survive.”
Goldfinch agreed, adding that it was imperative to protect Santee Cooper’s existing 1,700 employees in the future of the utility.
“They were not responsible for what happened with that nuclear crisis,” Goldfinch said. “Santee Cooper to me is maybe a three- or a four-legged stool. It has a tremendous amount of debt, cheap rates and it has to be a net positive for the taxpayer, not a net negative.”
Goldfinch said in the future, it is crucial for South Carolina to catch up on important legislation, including education.
“We’ve got to become more able-bodied, more nimble to be able to get these important things done,” he said. “Without it we’re going to lag behind every year.”
Progress on the education front has been minimal, largely taking place in the state’s technical colleges. In an effort to boost the state’s trained workforce, the state introduced a pilot program last year at Williamsburg Technical College that offered free tuition.
“I think if we continue to keep expanding it, children and the state will benefit as a result,” Sabb said. “South Carolina is currently experiencing significant growth. Some of the literature we read suggests that as companies come, if we’re not careful, we won’t have an adequate workforce to supply the employees that these companies are demanding. K through 12 obviously is important. But I think there’s a grade 13 and a grade 14 that we ought to encourage all of our children to be a part of. We know that there are jobs out there for them. I think it is a road map to the future as it relates to preparing our work force for the jobs that we know are going to continue to come.”
Goldfinch said lawmakers need to change how they think about addressing education.
“Republicans have missed the boat on education for a number of years,” he said. “I’m a Republican, but we’ve let the Democrats run with that topic and do everything they can and we’ve focused on the back end. We’ve focused on the job side instead of how to create a pipeline for the workforce. It’s time that we start focusing on how to create a pipeline of workers that are skilled, trained and ready to get to the workforce today. We want to see high-paying, high-quality jobs right here in this county.”
The South Carolina Technical College System includes 16 colleges, serving 58 percent of the state’s undergraduates. Under the system, students can qualify for the Lottery Tuition Assistance program by being enrolled in a minimum of six credit hours and making satisfactory academic progress.
Since 2003, nearly 400,000 lottery scholarships have been offered by the system.
Residents questioned representatives on issues at the breakfast, with many surrounding seismic testing and offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. While Hewitt opposes drilling, Goldfinch said he supported drilling for natural gas.
“Quite honestly, I don’t believe it’s ever going to happen,” he said. “We have a 50-plus year reserve of natural gas. It’s 10 to 100 times more expensive to drill offshore than onshore. The geologists I’ve talked to say in their opinion that the reserves are natural gas and very little oil. I support drilling for natural gas because it’s clean, abundant and American-made. We at least need to know what we have in case we ever have to drill.”
Oil, he said, was a much different topic.
“I think the debate is taking us off topic from the things we do have a voice in,” he said. “Oil raises emotions that I think deserve something more than just a yes or no from your representative. I think our citizens should have to vote on it. This is something that impacts all South Carolinians.”
While Sabb said he was a “never say never kind of guy,” both he and Anderson said because it’s not needed at the current time, they were not for drilling.
Hewitt said the decision will be made on a federal level but that he remained opposed to drilling.
“All 34 municipalities have passed resolutions opposing it,” he said. “If we’re going to represent our constituents, then we need to carry that message.”
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