Newberry Notes this week is a review of the 2017 legislative session with Sen. Ronnie Cromer, who serves District 18. District 18 covers all of Newberry County and portions of Lexington County and Union County. Cromer was chairman of the Senate Rules Committee last years and is chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee this year.
Question: What has that transition been like and what led you to make the change?
The Senate has seen a lot of new faces in the last year and that’s opened up a few doors and changes in those leadership positions. The Banking and Insurance Committee has significant impact on the daily lives of everyday South Carolinians. As chairman, I’m able to have a greater influence over those issues that affect these families and small businesses that make our state an envy of so many others, and I’m able to be a voice for consumer protection with many financial interests involved. As a pharmacist, I have a first-hand knowledge of insurance requirements, gaps and areas that need improvement which is one reason it’s been such a smooth transition.
In fact, a bill that I had authored became law this year that deals directly with consumer protection. It references Motor Fuel Retailers to the Department of Consumer Affairs Unfair Trade Practices Act for attempting to claim for selling motor fuel below the cost of exemption.
Today, regular session in the Senate has ended for the year and the only items left to deal with is the state budget and possible vetoes by Governor McMaster.
Question: How do you sum up this year in the Senate?
The Senate shortened this year’s session by four weeks which led some to be concerned about the ability to get things over the finish line in enough time. What we’ve found is that the Senate has operated efficiently and we were able to pass real, meaningful legislation that will without a doubt better our citizens lives and improve some key functions of state government. This year has been about one overarching theme…accountability. It’s often overused and rarely achieved, but this year we provided accountability to our state workers and retirees, accountability in law enforcement, accountability with our state’s education from the top down and accountability to our state’s crumbling infrastructure.
Question: What did the Senate do this year to address the concern among retirees and protecting their pensions?
Retirees and state employees are so important to us. We’ve made promises to those retirees that their pensions will be protected and that they should not worry about the State Retirement System. These are real, hardworking people: the police officer, the school teacher and their families who do great work for our state. South Carolina is not alone in our concerns of pensions, it’s a significant concern seen nationwide. We’ve seen it necessary to tackle this important in a two phase plan: (1) Bringing our current pension to solvency and meeting those promises made to state employees and (2) Develop a long-term vision for state retirement system and look to ensure future state employees have no need to worry. I’m pleased to say that the Senate and House passed a bill that shore’s up the state’s pension and the governor has signed that bill into law. We worked for more than 9 months developing this plan and heard testimony from experts in the field of public pension. That was phase one which protects those state employees. Phase two is already beginning as we investigate, research and consider long-term alternatives.
Question: And what about the roads?
The House and Senate both voted to override the Governor’s veto of the roads bill.
Question: What should our citizens know about this plan?
I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk a little bit about this bill. You’re right, people have received more communication on this one issue than nearly all other issues combined, and for good reason. I don’t think anyone who’s being honest can’t recognize that our roads and our bridges are crumbling. Republicans and Democrats alike want the roads fixed. The disagreement often comes in how we can get there. Let me set the record straight on a few items that some groups have been alleging, because the people of South Carolina deserve to hear the truth: Yes, the roads are underfunded. Yes, there have been a number of reforms to the SCDOT over the past 10 years, and No, there is not a secret pot of money sitting underneath the Capitol to fix the roads. I, along with many others, have been saying from day one that we must find a long-term funding solution to fix our roads, but it can’t be just any ole’ plan. It must be the right plan.
This bill that we have passed does three very specific things that was a must in order to achieve a real, comprehensive roads bill. (1) It creates a long-term sustainable funding source to fix the roads, (2) adds key reforms to the way we fix our roads, and (3) provides tax relief for those who most use the roads most and would be most burdened with a user fee increase.
#1: It does raise the user fee by 2¢ every 6 years, a total of 12¢. Around 30% of which is payed by out-of-state drivers. Right now, out of state drivers are essentially causing deterioration to our roads for free, which is just not right. This is a nominal increase when looked at by each driver, but sends the much needed revenue to the Department of Transportation to fill potholes right away. Contrary to what interests groups may tell you, the new monies raised go into a newly created Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund solely to be used for repair and maintenance on existing road miles. Not bicycle trails, not bus lines, nor any other pork projects.
#2: It adds important, key accountability reforms to the way we fix our roads. Under this new plan, the governor truly is in charge of the Department of Transportation. We did a number of things to improve the agency, but three stand out as most notable:
(1) The governor now has an additional appointment and can remove the Commissioners at will without legislative approval. This puts him solely in charge of the members of the Commission to remove political influence.
(2) We added provisions to eliminate the possibility of conflict of interests and special project decisions made on who-knows-who instead of real, un-influenced need for a project.
(3) The Commission is removed from the day-to-day operations of the Department, so that the Secretary of SCDOT is solely responsible for projects and the Commission keeps its hands off.
It’s also important to remember that reforming the agency has happened over the course of many years. The Senate requested an audit of the agency and from that implemented a number of changes both from the General Assembly and internally including the requirement to post priority of projects online providing transparency of which projects are being considered.
#3: The other key feature of this bill that was passed is providing tax relief to those who use the roads. Under the plan, residents may claim a 100% refundable credit of the actual motor fuel user fee incurred to be spent on preventative maintenance. This means that if you spend $40 in added motor user fee increases, you can claim that $40 to be used for on an oil change, new tires, an alignment or any other expense that makes your car safer. Effectively, this provides a tax neutral option to see that those who use the roads most are not unfairly burdened.
Question: Is it a perfect plan?
Absolutely not, but it is a good plan that will go a long way to fixing the roads and making additional key reforms that better the operations and accountability of the agency.
Question: It appears that improved highway safety was a big theme from this year?
It absolutely was. The infrastructure improvement plan went a long way to improving highway safety for years to come, but we also improved highway safety in other ways. Our state experienced the tragic loss of a highway worker in 2012 and two SCDOT highway workers in Aiken in 2016. It was important to us that we take the safety of our highway workers seriously, especially in light of the increase in construction to come over the next few years. We passed a bill to improve their safety by stiffening penalties for the endangerment of a highway worker, or even emergency personnel on the side of the highways, as well as cracking down on speeding in work zones.
After three years of work, we also passed a moped safety bill that requires mopeds to follow the same traffic laws as all other vehicles. Mopeds can be extremely dangerous and pose concerns to all motorists. These changes will also ensure that mopeds are not exempt from DUI laws and can have their license restricted for DUI as it applies with other motorists. Now, mopeds must be licensed and registered and must travel in the right hand lane on roads no greater than 55 mph. We want highways, not dieways in South Carolinas. I’m convinced that our efforts this year will save lives and improve the overall highway safety.
Question: Is there any additional legislation that may be of interest to our readers?
We’ve had a good year and I want the people of Newberry and South Carolina to know that there are a number of things that I haven’t been able to mention that are important. In this short time, we established a new statewide program for the State Department of Education to investigate and develop policies to address unsound school districts finances. We have a number of school districts in this state struggling whether it be from too much growth or diminishment. All children deserve a quality education and this program will allow us to better recognize the operations of those districts.
We also passed a number of pro-business legislation such as allowing Ponzi and pyramid schemes victims to seek relief to the Unfair Trade Practices Act, push back on local political subdivisions from mandating business mandates that could harm our mom-and-pop businesses, as well as requiring liability insurance coverage for persons who sell alcoholic beverages on premise for consumption. This will help our patrons and operations.
We haven’t ignored our law enforcement community either. We are addressing mental health and addictive disorders by providing training in these areas that have become a growing concern for law enforcement to provide better training for our officers and safety for the community.
I’m pleased with the work we have accomplished in just this short amount of time and we will be focused on a number of items as well during the summer and when we come back into session in January.
Margaret Brackett is from Newberry. Her columns appear weekly in The Newberry Observer.