With a new legislative session starting in the Statehouse in January, Sumter's elected officials spent breakfast Tuesday hearing from their community about priorities for the upcoming year.
The Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce held its annual …
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The Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce held its annual legislative breakfast at 7:30 a.m. at Central Carolina Technical College's South Main Street campus, where local government officials, businesses and community leaders gathered to hear about the Sumter delegation's goals for this next session and to ask questions about certain bills and topics, ranging from local school district objectives to statewide medical marijuana.
Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, and Reps. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, David Weeks, D-Sumter, and Will Wheeler, D-Lee, attended the event, where they emphasized the ability for Sumter's seven legislators to work together in the best interests of their constituents, regardless of political leaning.
Smith and McElveen both said the ongoing fallout from the collapse of a state-owned Santee-Cooper utility and SCE&G nuclear plant construction project that left $9 billion in costs with taxpayers took up a large portion of last year and will continue to be a major focus.
"Last year was probably the toughest year since I've been there," said McElveen, who was first elected to the Senate in 2013 to represent District 35, which covers the western half of Sumter County and goes into portions of Kershaw, Lee and Richland counties. "We spent a lot of time on that."
Weeks and Wheeler said the education budget will also be a focus this year, dealing with issues ranging from school safety to teacher pay to reforming the budgeting formulas and making sure rural districts are not left out.
In the Chamber's legislative priorities for 2019 that it distributed at the breakfast, bringing South Carolina teachers' salaries equal to the 16-state Southeast average was included with other educational and workforce development items such as bringing a technical high school to Sumter and focusing on soft skills development in middle and high schools.
While all representatives and senators must look at the state as a whole, Sumter's lawmakers also know there is a major decision to be made in the educational realm this year.
"Choosing the next superintendent is probably the most important decision that will be made for the next decade in Sumter," McElveen said.
He said the nine-member school board must continue to build on the success made in the last year and a half when it comes to recruitment and retention and morale by choosing a district leader who "understands the old stigmas of the two districts and the community and where we are since consolidation."
Sumter School Districts 2 and 17 consolidated into one in 2011. After a financial crisis was revealed to the public that involved $6.2 million in overspending, an interim superintendent has since helped lead the district to a small surplus. The board is aiming to select a new full-time superintendent by March.
Moving away from education, Smith answered a question about whether a bill will finally get passed to exempt military retirees from income tax, which the Chamber supports.
"The House has historically passed it," he said, but it has not been able to get through the Senate. He did say Sumter's senators are not the ones who continue to block it.
"I don't see it as giving away money. It's an attraction ... these veterans are retiring at the peak of their work career, and we could help resolve some workforce issues by welcoming retirees, but they're going to Tennessee or Florida," said Smith, who was elected on Wednesday without opposition to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, which gets the first crack at the state budget. He was first elected to the House in 2001.
Weeks fielded a question about the possibility of medical and recreational marijuana becoming legal in South Carolina, hedging against it passing as a recreational form but saying a bill allowing medical marijuana will likely be discussed again this year. He said the main obstacle is ensuring controls are in place for law enforcement.
The Chamber opposes the passage of medical marijuana, reasoning it could lead to "additional issues relating to workforce retention and hiring."
When asked about funding to fix roads through tax on gas that was put into place last year, Smith said projects started in rural areas are incrementally coming in. In year two of a five-year phase-in, he implored residents to be patient because simply getting the money in is only the first step. Projects need to be planned and properly distributed, and contractors need to be signed.
Other legislative priorities expressed by the Chamber
Some other points the Chamber supports as a focus for 2019 include:
- Adopting a uniform business license application process to expedite permitting for companies across local jurisdictions without negatively impacting municipal revenue;
- Reviewing the South Carolina tax code to find an alternative to Act 388, removing the undue tax burden on local businesses;
- Reauthorizing the Angel Investment Tax Credit to encourage South Carolinians to invest in startup businesses; and
- Approving reciprocal licensing for military spouses allowing occupational or professional licenses to be honored from other states providing original license is maintained and kept current.
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