T&D EDITORIAL: Legislature's prosperity challenge is addressing rural-urban divide
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T&D EDITORIAL: Legislature's prosperity challenge is addressing rural-urban divide

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Sen. John Matthews

During the S.C. Press Association's annual Legislative Workshop in Columbia on Jan. 9, Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, said South Carolina is two different states financially.

State lawmakers are back in Columbia. They face many of the key issues on the agenda in 2019 in this final year of a two-year session. Pending legislation can be considered.

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Topping the priority list for just about every lawmaker is education, with the future of Santee Cooper and a projected $1.8 billion surplus also among key issues.

How these issues will be handled could be impacted by an election year, with all House and Senate seats up for a vote in 2020. Of greater impact, as we see it, will be South Carolina's urban-rural reality.

Veteran Democratic Sen. John Matthews of Bowman defines that reality in terms of South Carolina as two states in one, with 60% of the wealth concentrated in 14 of the 46 counties.

The result is disparity in nearly every aspect of life and in particular in key areas such as education, health care, infrastructure and jobs.

1. Education. The Senate will begin the session considering its version of education reform pending when lawmakers left Columbia in 2019.

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They'll likely increase teacher pay again, but trickier will be the issues of revising the funding formula that contributes to the divide between rural and urban districts and improving school facilities in rural districts where infrastructure bears no resemblance to schools in the richest counties. Even across-the-board increases in teacher pay won't be equitable as what teachers are paid in poor, rural districts does not come close to compensation in urban schools.

2. Health care. Rural areas have been hit hard in an era when hospitals have closed and medical care is concentrated increasingly in urban areas. South Carolina's growing but aging population increases the challenges for lawmakers as Health & Human Services requires more and more money annually.

Access to care from both financial and geographic standpoints is a major issue in rural counties. Lawmakers see telemedicine as a way to address disparities, connecting rural residents with medical care and expertise available in urban areas.

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Still, access to transportation and technology must be addressed in effective ways if rural health care is to improve.

3. Infrastructure. It's not just roads and water-sewer services that divide the state's counties, it's another key component of infrastructure in the 21st century: access to broadband internet service at sufficiently high speeds to make access something other than the struggle it is for many in rural South Carolina. Government's role in promoting broadband access is vital as private firms are always going to gravitate to serving large, concentrated populations as opposed to the few in sparsely populated areas. Rural South Carolina will never prosper without adequate broadband service.

4. Santee Cooper. In considering sale of the state-owned utility, lawmakers just weigh the future of Santee Cooper’s present role in providing water and economic development services in rural areas. The future of lakes Marion and Moultrie is also a priority.

5. Jobs. Education, health care, infrastructure and Santee Cooper: Improve all and rural South Carolina will increasingly be attractive for development and could join truly in the state's "manufacturing renaissance."

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield says he would like to see lawmakers choose not to spend all of the projected $1.8 billion surplus expected for 2020-21. Yet he predicts the General Assembly will spend it all.

If they don't, our hope is the money won't be returned to taxpayers in the form of a gimmicky $50 rebate. If they do spend it, do so in ways that bridge the gaps between urban and rural in South Carolina.

Lawmakers from wealthy areas certainly should be directly representing their constituents' interests. Their bigger challenge is joining effectively in the rise of rural South Carolina.

As long as this is two states in one, true prosperity will remain fleeting.

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