Friday, April 3, 2015 Blog

It’s open season, and not just for turkeys…

by Andy Hollis

What a week it has been! Spring is finally here. The pollen has largely washed away. Spring break is over (for our family anyway). That’s the good side.

On the other hand, the Legislature, and one DOT commissioner, are still up to an unprecedented level of mischief. This article by Sammy Fretwell with The State sums it up perfectly. Although only turkeys are in season in the Lowcountry, it is open season on environmental regulations in Columbia. The precipitating event for the article was a “lengthy diatribe” against environmentalists by Myrtle Beach highway commissioner and development consultant Mike Wooten. Sammy quotes Conservation League lobbyist Anne Peterson-Hutto on the subject:

Wooten, a development engineer from Myrtle Beach, made his comments Wednesday as a larger debate is unfolding in the Legislature about loosening environmental rules. This year, the Legislature is considering at least a half dozen bills that would protect businesses and make development of the landscape easier.

Anne Peterson Hutto, a lobbyist for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said anti-environmental bills are nothing new in the Legislature, but the push by business interests appears more aggressive this year than in recent years. She said many of the bills would hurt the public.

The specific issue Wooten was testifying on was the “automatic stay,” which prevents developers and highway departments from moving forward with projects for which permits have been appealed. If the public’s role in the permitting process is to mean anything, the stay is essential. Otherwise, if roads were constructed while under appeal, any conclusion would be rendered moot. And, by the way, a judge can currently lift the stay if she deems it appropriate.

Neither Wooten, nor apparently any other member of the DOT commission, was swayed by, or even mentioned, the fact that not one single highway project has ever been delayed by the automatic stay … in the entire history of the law. The DOT commission had earlier this month unanimously passed a resolution to do away with the provision, with virtually no debate, operating in what a friend of mine calls a “fact-free environment.”

Part of the problem is that the Legislature simply has too much power. I wrote an op-ed on the almost unbridled power of the Speaker of the House late last year.

This week the Post and Courier printed former highway commissioner Sarah Nuckles’ op-ed on the parallel problem in the Senate, where the president of the Senate has an inordinate ability to influence regulations, the budget, highway construction and virtually every other aspect of life over which state government has control. Nuckles explains that the current president, Senator Hugh Leatherman from Florence, is also

  • On the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) board (to which he appointed himself);
  • On the Joint Bond Review Committee, which oversees the bonds issued by the STIB;
  • The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which appoints three of six members of the Joint Bond Review Committee;
  • On the Budget and Control Board, which also approves bonds issued by the STIB;
  • Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which decides on how much funding to provide the STIB;
  • Vice Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee;
  • A member of the Ethics Committee, which oversees the members of the Senate to prevent any hanky panky.

It is important to note that the STIB and the DOT are the very entities the Legislature is considering sending an additional 900 million in new tax dollars annually, to fix South Carolina’s ailing road system, under the startlingly optimistic (“delusional” might be the better word) assumption that the money will not be diverted to political boondoggles. It is also worth noting that this would be one of the largest tax increases in the history of South Carolina.

On the bottom end of the state, Beaufort has taken the job of protecting land seriously, by passing and funding the Rural and Critical Land program more than ten years ago. The program has to date spent almost $100 million protecting that beautiful part of the world. The Conservation League’s South Coast director, Kate Schaefer, explains in the Island Packet how to make sure the money is spent in the most effective way in the future.

If you wonder why that’s important, you need look no further than Bluffton, which Bluffton Today reports has undergone a radical transformation over the past 25 years. The coming decades promise to bring similarly dramatic changes. Even with the modest tools we have in place at the state and local levels to guide growth, it will not be easy to protect this extraordinary region. If Commissioner Wooten, Sens. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, and Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley, are successful in doing away with state wetland protection in Dorchester County, the automatic stay, beachfront protection and other safeguards, the job will be even more difficult.

Have a great and fulfilling Easter and Passover!

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