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SC GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2023

Orangeburg area lawmakers optimistic on working together

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Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, talks about education.

Higher education funding, criminal justice reform and the creation of economic and workforce development strategies are among the issues that local lawmakers say they will be addressing with the opening of the 2023 legislative session.

Everything from teacher shortages and aging school facilities to bail system changes and threats to the state’s electrical grid system are issues that legislators representing The T&D Region want to tackle.

District 39 Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Bowman

Stephens, whose district includes portions of Orangeburg, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, said addressing teacher shortages is critical.

“In Orangeburg County, we do have a shortage of teachers. In order for us to attract teachers and ensure that we equip our children with skills that will ensure them a life that is competitive, especially in the job market, we have to focus on education," he said.

He said increasing teacher pay is a start.

“Last year we took them up to the minimum of $40,000 a year. We need to be somewhere in another $5,000 to $6,000 more to make that truly competitive and have young folks who want to actually go into education. So we really have to do some work there on the pay scale,” he said.

He said upgrading school facilities is another factor in improving education.

“Yes, we did pass a $190 million bond referendum for Orangeburg County schools. That is not enough ... There are some school facilities that will still have issues with students accessing classrooms from the outside and the environment,” he said.

Stephens continued, “The state of South Carolina for the last two years has passed $100 million to $150 million that is geared toward facility upgrades, as well as facility construction. I've been having conversations with some of my colleagues about a facilities bond for school facilities in the State of South Carolina. That will help throughout the state, especially those disadvantaged school districts, where the tax base is not sufficient enough to warrant actually building new facilities.

He said he will also put more focus on increasing economic development in rural counties.

“Representing five counties, I see a considerable amount of investments in the Midlands of South Carolina, as well as the Lowcountry. Berkeley County is doing exceptionally well, as well as Dorchester and Orangeburg counties, but we need to focus some more on our rural counties and trying to make them attractive enough so that industry will locate there. Our commerce department is doing a fantastic job of selling South Carolina. Our local economic development teams need to enhance that some more in selling individual counties,” Stephens said.

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He said the widening of Interstate 26 and I-95 will be key in economic growth.

“Those highways are two of the main highways in the state system and in this nation. Going back to the disadvantaged counties, or rural counties, those interstates open up the doors,” Stephens said.

He said he will also focus on legislation to combat hate crimes.

“I'm hoping that we can get beyond someone taking the life of someone because of his or her race, gender or national origin. ... We have to respect each other, but we have to make sure that we have legislation in place that will penalize individuals who do such hideous crimes and think that they can get away with it because society is beginning to look differently on crime,” Stephens said.

Parameters for high-speed chases that law enforcement officers sometime find themselves are another issue he wants to tackle. He said the general public’s safety should come first when deciding, for example, when to begin or end such chases.

“A number of deaths have occurred because of these chases throughout our communities. ... Some bills have been prefiled that will go into detail about what would precipitate such action as to when we stop, or pull back.

“In Orangeburg County, there have been a number of deaths from high-speed chases. It's prevalent throughout the county, state and nation. I think that it's about time we take a look at it and try to prevent these things from happening. Those are unnecessary deaths,” Stephens said.

The senator said he is excited by Gov. Henry McMaster’s proposed budget plan.

“He has looked at education and is willing to put some additional funding into education above and beyond what we've been doing over the last couple of years. My fear is that the old voucher grinch might raise his head again,” Stephens said.

“We may be passing legislation that will take funds from public schools and put it into the hands of private school parents, or the private schools themselves. I hope that will never happen, but I think it's probably inevitable that it is,” he said.

He said while the governor has thoroughly invested in the state’s economic growth, more can be done.

"I applaud him the governor for that. I think we may need to do more, but that is a start. I'm kind of satisfied with some of his proposals, but there are some others that I think we need to perk up a little bit more. Overall, he seems to have a handle on what's best for the State of South Carolina. I think from the General Assembly's perspective, we're going to put our spin on it too," Stephens said, including working to provide more funding for local colleges and universities.

South Carolina State University and Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College are among them.

"We've been looking at South Carolina State University hard recently in trying to help them bridge that gap as it relates financially. There are a number of things that need to happen on the campus ... but I think the institution is headed in the right direction, as well as Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College,” he said.

“I believe South Carolina State can actually have on the campus 5,000 to 6,000 students, but the problem is we don't have the dorms for that. We've recognized that. I applaud the institution and President Conyers and his staff for having that vision to grow the institution, but in order for us to grow it, we have to put some things in place,” said Stephens, an SC State alumnus.

"I think the academic piece is coming together. We just now have to make sure that we have the facilities to take care of our students, and those students who would love to be a fellow Bulldog,” he said, noting that OCtech was doing “wonders” for economic development with its plethora of course offerings.

District 93 Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews

Ott said having Republicans as the majority party in the General Assembly will presents challenges in trying to get legislation passed, but he’s committed to “mature governance."

“We’ve got a lot of problems that need to be addressed, and I’m just very hopeful that this General Assembly is going to take a mature approach at trying to address those problems and not play politics as much as I think that we have in recent years. The elections are over. It’s time to get down to the business of providing for our constituents and listening to them to try to address the needs and concerns of the state,” he said.

“I think the budget is obviously going to dominate early on. We’ve got a lot of one-time money, and we’ve got some new recurring money that we get to work with. The governor just recently put out his executive budget recommendation. So everybody’s trying to get up to speed on that,” Ott said.

“It looks encouraging to start with. I think a lot of his priorities line up with a lot of what my priorities are, which are law enforcement and education. Things have gotten so bad that even Henry McMaster has to acknowledge that we’ve been woefully short in those areas,” he said.

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Ott said figuring out ways to retain and recruit teachers as well as law enforcement officers will be among his priorities, along with making sure that “education savings accounts” won’t amount to putting public money into private schools.

“I’m concerned that there’s certainly going to be a major push this year for vouchers, what we are now calling ESAs, or education savings accounts. I think that majority party is certainly going to make a strong push for that. So that’s something that I’ve historically always been against and still don’t think that public dollars should be used for private education. So I’m going to try to hold the line there and make sure that our public schools are what the focus is,” he said.

Ott, who sits on a special economic development and energy issues committee which House Speaker Murrell Smith formed, said the state will have to continue to build on its strong economy.

“As far as I’m concerned, though, we’ve got to be smart about it. We certainly want to be make sure we’re recruiting good businesses to the state, but we’ve also got to be very smart about where we’re bringing them. We’ve got to look out for the rural communities. There has to be a balance,” he said, noting that he’ll also be working to keep energy costs low.

“You shouldn’t have to be deciding whether or not you can pay an electricity bill or the grocery bill. We’ve really got a lot of folks out there that are struggling with those types of decisions. So I want to really do a deep dive into trying to figure out how we can attract economic development, but at the end of the day, for me, it’s about making sure that our constituents are able to afford the electricity,” he said.

Ott has also introduced bipartisan legislation to allow betting on horse racing in the state and hopes to make it law.

“I’ve been working very hard on my equine support legislation. That’s another way of talking about allowing for advance-deposit wagering on horse racing in the State of South Carolina. Our equine industry has really fallen behind over the last couple of decades. Coming from a rural county of Calhoun and representing Orangeburg, where we’ve got things like the Elloree Trials, we’ve just got a rich equine horse history,” he said.

“I’m really excited about the possibility of getting that across the finish line this year, just opening up the opportunity for folks to engage in that online horse-racing wagering. That would bring a lot of revenue to our state,” Ott said.

He said he will also continue work to legalize the use of utility terrain vehicles on roads.

“More and more people are using them on roadways now. There’s some loopholes that people are able to use to be able to license them in other states and then drive them on our roadways. So we’re missing out on that revenue first and foremost, but at the end of the day, especially for the rural areas, it’s just something that a lot of people want. I’m going to continue to work on trying to legalize that and make sure that it’s safe,” he said.

He said he will also work to foster the Regional Medical Center’s burgeoning partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina, as well as support increased funding for local colleges and universities.

“We’re starting off a new era with the hospital. So we want to continue to make sure that we set them up for success,” Ott said.

He said he has been working with OCtech President Walt Tobin to make sure that the college gets funding to attract students into fields to accommodate what he expects will be an influx of hybrid and electric vehicles.

He said he would also be working with SC State to make sure that its capital and facility upgrade needs are met.

“I’m going to continue to work with the board and administration there on understanding what their needs are trying to make sure that we’re able to meet them,” Ott said.

District 40 Sent. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg

Hutto said, “I’m hopeful that we will continue to focus on education, particularly on infrastructure and the buildings in rural schools, rural counties. We have invested $100 million or more over the last two years in rural school infrastructure, and hopefully we’ll continue doing that.”

The legislator said teacher pay and teacher recruitment and retention need to be revisited.

“We also need to take another look at classroom size, make sure that we don’t have too many children in the classroom so that the teachers can effectively teach the children. We’re going to look at paid family leave for our teachers and other school employees. So I would like to accomplish solving a lot of issues related to education,” Hutto said.

He said making sure the state’s workers are properly trained is another focus area, particularly because “we have technical colleges and otherwise to handle the jobs that we have been successfully recruiting to South Carolina.”

Hutto continued, “We’ve also got some issues around criminal justice reform. There are issues about bail and some other issues (that have to be addressed),” along with making sure that the state’s electrical infrastructure is adequately protected.

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“We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got adequate laws designed to protect it. I think those are some of the main things that we will take up. There are a lot of budget issues as we go forward. With the forecast on our budget, folks tell us that this should be a good year.

“So we will look forward to potentially funding some projects. The consolidation of the schools in rural counties will move forward, this year probably Barnwell County,” he said.

Hutto said he will continue to promote the RMC’s partnership with MUSC.

“We’re in ongoing discussions with the hospital as they move forward with their partnership with MUSC. I don’t know that we’ll need any legislation, but there have been a lot of ongoing talks with the state about making sure that this transition to a partnership works well, and I think it will,” he said.

He said he appreciates the work that went into the governor’s proposed budget, including the parts regarding increased pay for teachers and state employees. He said he is sure there will be more funding for S.C. State and OCtech this year.

“Hopefully, we can get some for our local schools as well. It’s extremely early in the time table to talk about any specifics, but, yes, we have forecasts for a good budget. I believe there will be funds available for us to seek money to go to our local institutions to help them.”

District 95 Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg

Cobb-Hunter, whose district now includes portions of Dorchester County, said broadband expansion and increasing state employee pay will be among her statewide goals.

“As a member of Joint Bond Review Committee, we have been tasked with overseeing the implementation of broadband. So I’m just really interested in making sure that the language that was inserted in the bill is sufficient to make sure that rural South Carolina gets access to broadband,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter continued, “Locally, my focus is going to be on economic development, and specifically infrastructure and funding for higher education. In our area, we’ve got two technical colleges, OCtech and Denmark Tech. The presidents at both of those institutions are doing a great job, and I intend to do what I can to make sure that they get the kind of resources that they need.”

“For me, it’s going to be about making sure that we have the tools to continue the great work that has been done by Orangeburg County Council. I am really excited about the new economic development director. I look forward to meeting with him to see what his vision is for the county and how I can help him with that. I do believe that there are great things happening in Orangeburg County,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter said she was impressed with the governor’s proposed budget.

“Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised. I appreciate the governor coming out of the gate recommending pay raises for state employees. I want to make sure, though, that we stop dividing state employees by giving some a raise, but not others. I think all state employees deserve a decent wage,” she said.

“I just know, especially in this post-pandemic climate, that workers have choices now, and a lot of them are exercising that choice. The other thing I like is, of course, putting aside money for a rainy day,” Cobb-Hunter said, noting that it may be warranted with a Republican-controlled House in the U.S. Congress.

“I’m just nervous about all of the boon that we’ve had for the last two years coming to a screeching halt. The current Congress seems to not want to govern, but investigate. ... I’m very nervous about the Republican-controlled House and the negative impact that they may have on all the good work that President Biden and the Democratic Congress has done over the last two years to grow this economy. I think it’s in jeopardy, I really do,” she said.

She continued, “Unfortunately, what is happening in D.C. is filtering down to the state level. So I am still so very disappointed that the voices of five Black women are no longer heard in the General Assembly as a result of redistricting. That’s a significant loss on a personal level for me. It’s just going to be interesting to see how things evolve.”

She said the widening of I-26 through Orangeburg County will also be a local priority for her.

“I know that my persistence in raising the issue is how we have gotten on the list and moved up on the list. It really is true that in politics the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s my job to squeak so that Orangeburg and Dorchester counties get the grease,” Cobb-Hunter said.

She said she is going to spend the next two years acquainting herself with and doing whatever she can for her Dorchester County constituency.

“The county administrator in Dorchester County has done a phenomenal job, and I want to be a part of what Dorchester County Council is doing,” Cobb-Hunter said.

District 90 Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg

Bamberg said he wants to keep fighting to move the state forward.

“We rank last in a lot of things we ought to be first in, and first in a lot of things we ought to be last in. Everyday I’m working to change that. I hope to get taxes lowered and bring more state funds to our community, especially our schools and medical facilities,” he said.

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Bamberg continued, “Bamberg County is, for example, one of nearly a dozen counties in our state without a single OB/GYN. That must change. In a state where Republicans in the General Assembly so firmly ‘believe’ in protecting an unborn baby, it’s time to put the money where the mouth is in a lot of ways. We also need continued infrastructure improvement so that we are best positioned as the next area to grow as coast population growth heads down I-26.”

Bamberg said this year’s legislative session presents opportunities to pass meaningful legislation.

“We often waste valuable time debating issues designed to divide, with the goal of scoring political points. I'm not interested in that, and I hope my colleagues on the other side of the aisle aren't either. I'm always hopeful at the start of the legislative session because of the opportunity we're granted by voters to pass meaningful legislation. I'm concerned by the shift in the Republican Party to the right and how that will impact the bills we debate and how our time will be spent at the Statehouse this year,” he said.

Bamberg said he likes what he sees in the governor’s proposed budget.

“I'm glad to see Gov. McMaster finally support funding for many of the things Democrats like us have been fighting for over the years, like updating water systems in rural communities and improving safety in our schools given the change in times,” he said.

District 91 Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Allendale

Hosey said seeing that the I-95 Corridor Authority Act become law is a priority for him.

The bill would establish a 15-member authority representing Orangeburg, Bamberg, Allendale, Barnwell, Clarendon, Colleton, Darlington, Dillon, Hampton, Jasper, Lee, Marion, Marlboro, Sumter and Williamsburg counties.

"We've been up and down on that for several years. Last year, we got it passed through the House and it got held up in the Senate. We're going to try again this year with the assurance that Senate leaders are going to try to push it over in the Senate this time," he said.

Hosey said he hopes the authority will help reduce poverty and other issues that have crippled an area sometimes referred to as the Corridor of Shame.

Getting a hate crime bill passed in the state is another priority, though he said it will be "an uphill battle."

Hosey has said that he and Sen. Brad Hutto also secured $110 million from the SRS settlement funds to build a Barnwell County Consolidated High School and Career Center.

"With the local consolidated district, Blackville and Williston went on with the process of it. Barnwell is still holding out of it. Sen. Hutto and I will have to legislate them into the process," he said.

With redistricting, Hosey's district has gained a portion of western Orangeburg County, where he's also working to make sure local needs are met.

"I'll have to talk to the citizens because it is a new district. I don't try to push things down on folks. We will have our town hall meetings and say, 'Look, what you think you want?' I have some brand new people with boots on the ground that we went through the election process this past year with that I will be talking to to try to get whatever interests that they might have," he said.

Hosey continued, "I've found out that sometimes when we as legislators put in for something, they have to go through hoops and hurdles to try to get it done through county council or whatever," he said, noting that he's looking for Springfield, however, to move forward with a $1.8 million multipurpose recreation facility for which he helped secure funding.

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"That has been ironed out, I believe, to a point where we can move forward with that project," he said.

"Over the years, I am not bragging, but it's a fact that God has worked with me to get some things in my district, and I will continue that effort with the voice of the people, what they say they want."

Hosey has been in the House since 1999.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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