Issues

Sen. Rand Paul has said criminal justice reform should be a Republican Party plank, and he’s right; during one of the 2016 presidential debates, he said this: "I think the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted our African-American community. What we need to do is make sure the war on drugs is equal protection under the law and that we don’t unfairly incarcerate another generation of African-American males.” Rand is absolutely right; if the GOP wants to become the party the champions individual liberty and limited (i.e., constitutional) government, then criminal justice reform must be part of its platform.

For this reason, I authored a bill (later signed into law by the governor) that expunged non-violent criminal records when a juvenile turns 17. Many young people have been discriminated against in employment, educational opportunities, and enlistment in the military service because of having a juvenile-court record, and passing this bill will help them make a fresh start. And it’s also why I also cosponsored a body-camera bill that was also enacted into law. An informed citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic (see Jefferson, et al.).

For many years a Confederate battle flag flew beside the Confederate Soldier Monument on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. I know this flag is proudly honored by many fine South Carolinians as a symbol of their heritage and urged acceptance of and respect for that reality. But I also know that this flag has been hijacked by hate groups and is perceived by many as symbol of human bondage and slavery, and for that reason I voted for it to be furled and removed from the State House grounds. My deceased friend, Clementa Pinckney, said it very well at the tender age of 26: “If we are able to resolve this issue, we have the great potential of solving larger problems and larger issues in the state. I don't argue with anyone who feels the flag represents their Southern heritage. However, it is not their Statehouse. It is our Statehouse."

This op-ed I co-authored with South Carolina State Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw) sets forth my thoughts on ethics reform:

We take ethics in government very seriously. When the people's trust is broken, the people's business cannot be done. Real ethics reform in South Carolina must be based on two overriding principles: First, complete financial disclosure by officials, and second, an independent body to investigate alleged wrongdoing by elected officials in the legislative or executive branches.

On the last day of the South Carolina General Assembly’s session, House Bill 3945 – commonly referred to as the ethics bill – died when a majority of the State Senate, on a bi-partisan basis, refused to pass it. We joined with other state senators in insisting that our state deserved better than a watered-down bill that failed to deliver basic reforms.

No one can reasonably argue that our state’s current ethics laws adequately check the behavior of those elected to serve the people. Those laws, last revised over two decades ago, have earned our state a grade of “F” and a numerical score of 57 from the State Integrity Investigation, a collaborative project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

The version of HB 3945 recently debated in the State Senate had a section requiring disclosure of income sources, but not the amounts received from those sources – information vital to assessing whether a lawmaker has a conflict of interest. But what truly made the bill unacceptable was the deletion of the section requiring some independent oversight of elected officials’ behavior.

Many of those following the legislative process closely saw this coming. A few weeks before session ended, the Rock Hill Herald wrote: “State lawmakers appear willing to pass a watered-down ethics reform bill that continues to allow legislators to police themselves. We question whether a bill that doesn’t contain a provision for an independent oversight commission composed of non-legislators is even worth passing.”

We asked ourselves that question, and decided that it wasn’t. The Greenville News put it well when it wrote: “There is no conceivable way a House or Senate ethics committee can always objectively investigate alleged ethics violations by its own members; and even if an objective investigation were possible, the illusion of subjectivity creates questions about any conclusions.”

Still, some contended that passing a watered-down ethics bill would have been better than nothing. They argued, "Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

The (Columbia) State correctly summed up the flaw in this reasoning: “The problem lies in the temptation it (passing HB 3945) gives our legislators to check ‘ethics reform’ off their to-do list and go on their merry way, as if they have reformed our ethics law.” And that newspaper correctly stated the bill “should be passed only with the very clear and explicit acknowledgment that it is not an ethics-reform bill.”

Far from acknowledging that it wasn’t an ethics-reform bill, however, HB 3945 was praised by its proponents on the floor of the State Senate as comprehensive ethics reform. And senior lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle privately acknowledged that, if the bill was passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor, “ethics was done for another 20 years.” The people of South Carolina deserve better than this.

Moreover, in addition to the critical omission of independent oversight of elected officials’ actions, HB 3945 was deficient in that it broadly defined “electioneering communications” to include any person or group that even references a candidate in a communication within 60 days of a general or 30 days of a primary election. This would force many non-political organizations to disclose their top donors, thus chilling free speech – which is why government-watchdog groups from across the ideological spectrum opposed the bill.

South Carolina citizens deserve access to information on whether their elected officials have conflicts of interest and to an independent process to hold them accountable, and right now they have neither. Nor would HB 3945 have provided it. Ultimately ethical government only comes when we elect ethical people. But a strong ethics law would help hold unethical officials accountable. The job now is to pass a law next session that does just that.

Along with a majority of legislators in both chambers of the South Carolina General Assembly, I have rejected Obamacare’s invitation to increase enrollment in our state’s Medicaid program from its current population of 1.1 million to 1.6 million people. I think having 35% of all South Carolinians on Medicaid is a bad idea; it would eventually either bankrupt our state or necessitate massive tax increases.

My Democratic friends are fond of saying that rejection of Medicaid expansion proves I am either unaware of the sad state of health care in South Carolina or unwilling to do anything about it. Neither is true. There’s no question but that many people in our state lack adequate access to quality health care. A report recently issued by the nonpartisan United Health Foundation gives South Carolina an “F” in overall health status, emergency care, primary care, chronic disease management, mental health and prenatal care. This is unacceptable.

But enrolling 500,000 more South Carolinians into Medicaid – even if such were affordable, which it isn’t – would do nothing to address the core and fundamental problem: there are not enough health-care providers in South Carolina to meet the needs of its residents. In order to truly improve access to health care, there must be an increase in the supply of providers.

South Carolina, with its estimated 3,600 primary-care physicians, ranks 40th among the states with just 77.5 physicians per 100,000 of population (compared with 90.1 per 100,000 nationwide). Moreover, there is a strong bias in the distribution of those physicians to urban or suburban areas, and 42 of our 46 counties are medically underserved. One county (Lee) has no physicians at all.

This supply problem is compounded by the fact that, in recent years, medical students have been choosing specialties outside of the primary-care field. There is now an emphasis and increased value placed on specialized skills. Primary-care providers have historically been the backbone of the rural healthcare system, and increasingly there are less of them to go around.

So what can we do to increase supply? One way is to better utilize our state’s estimated 3,500 advanced-practice registered nurses. These nurses hold at least a master’s degree in nursing, supplemented with advanced education and clinical training to autonomously assess, diagnose and manage a patient’s health care at the primary-care level.

The problem, however, is that South Carolina laws severely restrict the health-care services these nurses are able to provide. These restrictions impose limitations on delivering care and prescribing certain medications, referring patients for diagnostic care, and certifying hospice or long-term care for patients.

Perhaps the most restrictive law is the one that prohibits these nurses from providing care for any patient who lies outside a 45-mile radius of a supervising physician. Since the majority of physicians practice in urban or suburban areas, nurses who are ready, willing and able to fill unmet health-care needs are legally barred from doing so.

I have proposed legislation to remove these legal barriers so that these nurses stand alongside our primary-care physicians to provide basic health-care services to South Carolinians. Such a dramatic increase in the supply of providers would not only improve health-care outcomes, but also drive down costs (since the market equilibrium price decreases when the supply curve shifts to the right).

My legislative efforts are opposed by the South Carolina Medical Association, ostensibly not to protect economic turf but to protect the quality of patient care. It has been my experience, however, that those to be protected by this paternalism are rarely on organized medicine’s side; they consider increased access to health care at a lower cost a good thing.

Moreover, a multitude of studies show that the quality, efficiency, patient satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness of advanced-practice nurses’ care is as good as the care provided by physicians. In any event, we believe patients should have the option of choosing to receive health care from these nurses, especially since the alternative now is in far too many cases no care at all.

So let’s cut the red tape that prevents nurses from providing the care they are qualified to give. Better access of health care at a lower cost is a clear win for all South Carolinians.

I cosponsored and supported S. 997, a bill passed by the South Carolina Senate in 2016, to require the tracking of refugees entering the state of South Carolina and to hold refugees’ sponsors liable for any crimes committed by settlers from terrorist nations.

The federal government says that state law, which requires state and local police to question and possibly arrest illegal immigrants during the enforcement of other laws, usurps federal authority. In saying this it relies on “federal preemption,” a court-declared doctrine that says states are prohibited from passing their own laws in areas where federal law already “occupies the field.” Immigration, the feds’ argument runs, is one of those areas. I disagree.

The federal preemption doctrine only precludes state laws that contradict federal ones, not those that are consistent. The United States Supreme Court held in 1976 that there is no indication in the federal immigration law “that Congress intended to preclude state regulation touching on aliens in general.” And the Ninth Circuit, which covers Arizona, held in 1983 that “where state enforcement activities do not impair federal regulatory interests concurrent enforcement activity is authorized.”

I authored and sponsored South Carolina’s first medical-marijuana legislation, a 2014 law that allows doctors to legally authorize their epileptic patients to take cannabis oil to alleviate their seizures. I am also the author and sponsored the pending bill to expand the medical conditions for which cannabis medicines can be authorized by doctors and used by their patients.

The U.S. Surgeon General has stated publicly that "medical marijuana can be helpful” when it comes to treating a wide range of illnesses, diseases and disorders; the United States Congress has for the past two years forbade the DOJ from enforcing federal drug laws against states that have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes; and an overwhelming majority of South Carolinians (70% of GOP primary voters!) support empowering doctors to prescribe cannabis-related medicine to their patients.

There has been pushback from socially conservative politicians and they’ve won some battles, but those of us pushing for doctors -- not politicians -- to be the ones who decide what medicines their patients are able take will eventually win the war.

The inappropriately titled Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the ACA) is an infection that endangers not only the effective delivery of health care in our nation, but also our economy and quality of life. In my opinion, South Carolina and other states have an obligation to slow the spread of that infection as best they can until such time as Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act and enacts market-based reforms that will truly expand access to healthcare. South Carolina, and other states, can effectively push back against the ACA by:

  • Invoking principle of anti-commandeering
  • Rejecting federal funds to enroll people in exchange
  • Rejecting ACA-authorized Medicaid expansion
  • Prohibiting the creation of a state exchange
  • Challenging the illegal implementation of the ACA
  • Curbing abuses by ACA navigators
  • Protecting our state insurance commissioner's authority
The South Carolina General Assembly is to aggressively pursue all of the other ways in which it can to slow the spread of that infection as best they can until such time as Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act.

My thoughts in this regard were best expressed by my friend and colleague, SC State Sen. Chip Campsen: "The land-based infrastructure necessary to support offshore drilling is extensive, dirty and highly industrial. There simply is no place on South Carolina's coast appropriate for this kind of industrialization. Our coast is dominated by residential and resort development, wildlife refuges and extensive protective ecosystems ... As an opponent to drilling offshore of South Carolina, there is no reason for me to support the seismic testing that is the precursor to drilling."

In 2006 the South Carolina General Assembly responded to outcry from over-taxed homeowners with a law that eliminated school funding from their property tax. Unfortunately, that’s only half the story. When lawmakers passed Act 388, they didn’t cut our overall tax burden, but expanded it by imposing higher sales taxes and additional taxes on businesses, second homes, and industrial and manufacturing properties.

Another insidious impact of that law is this: putting a higher tax burden on those other categories of property deters private capital investment and adds to an unhealthy crony-capitalism environment where a handful of powerful politicians can, and do, provide special treatment to well-connected companies.

So the question isn’t whether Act 388 should be amended, but how. As we begin that process, two facts must be kept in mind: First, state government in South Carolina takes far too much money out of the pockets of South Carolinians. Second, tax reform never benefits the people unless the overall amount of government spending decreases; simply lowering one tax while raising another – so-called “revenue-neutral” reform – is nothing but a shell game.

Advocacy groups that thrive on government spending insist we are taxed too little, but that is not true. Consider this: In the past three years, politicians in Columbia have increased general fund expenditures by 19 percent (from $5.11 billion to $6.08 billion). By comparison, average per-capita personal income of South Carolinians over that same span grew by only 6 percent (from $31,448 to $33,388).

Even this horrific statistic grossly understates how much money state government from the people. A second category of spending, referred to in Columbia simply as “Other Funds,” has exploded over the past decade. The expenditure of these “Other Funds” – a shorthand reference to agency fees that are nothing more than hidden taxes – skyrocketed from $4.8 billion in 2002 to $8.2 billion in the current fiscal year.

In the last legislative session I proposed a spending cap to limit state spending to core services, with surplus money returned to taxpayers. My proposal failed by a vote of 24-18, with eight GOP state senators voting “No.” This past November’s election, however, ushered new fiscal conservatives into the state senate, so 2013 could be the year this reform passes.

Which brings us back to Act 388. Some simply want the law repealed. I reject that approach because it would more than double property taxes on homes, and do nothing to reduce the overall amount of money taken from individuals and spent by government. Unless the overall amount of government spending decreases, it is better to do nothing and spare people the illusion that politicians are actually doing something worthwhile.

A better approach is to impose the cap on government spending, and use money in excess of the cap to provide tax relief for owners of properties who did not benefit from Act 388. Had state government spending increases been limited to the rate of inflation over the past three years, $622.5 million dollars could have been returned for this purpose. And if a similar cap had been imposed on the “Other Funds,” even more tax relief could have been effected.

Another important thing to consider: Our state’s sales-tax code is riddled with over 100 loopholes, which means that on an annual basis more sales taxes are exempted ($2.7 billion) than collected ($2.2 billion). Some exemptions, like those on food and medicine, are at least reasonable, and benefit the public as a whole. But far too many are simply the result of powerful industries hiring the right lobbyists.

The South Carolina Supreme Court is now considering whether these exemptions violate the equal protection clause in the state constitution, and it is likely to order the repeal of special exemptions that do not meet that clause’s “rational basis” test. It is expected that such a ruling will, at a minimum, result in the repeal or amendment of 60 exemptions, yielding about $600 million in new annual tax revenues.

There is already a strong push for government to spend every last penny of this anticipated new revenue, so we must discuss now how to instead pump this money back into the economy. And using it to provide property-tax relief to industrial, manufacturing and other commercial properties is an excellent alternative.

The bottom line is this: Given the excessive level of state government spending, and the prospect of at least $600 million in new sales-tax revenue, it is not necessary to raise any taxes – income, property or sales – to remedy the inequities and undo the damage caused by Act 388. Last Wednesday, I was appointed to the last spot on the Senate Finance Committee, and I will use my seat at the fiscal table to resist tax increases, limit spending and return money to the people.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The religious freedom recognized and protected by the First Amendment includes the right to religious belief and expression and a guarantee that the government neither prefers religion over non-religion nor favors particular faiths over others.

That said, however, unlike all of the 2016 GOP presidential I didn’t think ?the Kim Davis situation involved a “violation of religious liberty.” If she believes it is a sin to facilitate gay marriages, then she should have resigned. How does she have the right, in the name of religious liberty, to keep a job if she's unwilling to do what that job requires? Am I missing something? I think the power of judges to lock people up indefinitely for contempt is very problematic, and I also believe marriage as a crucial social institution can survive without the coercive power of the state and that government ought to get out of the marriage business entirely; those, however, are separate issues. I just don't see this issue as one involving religious liberty.

First, I reject the premise that insufficient funding is the primary reason for our roads and bridges being in poor repair (which they undoubtedly are). Total annual spending for our transportation infrastructure in 2009 (my first year in the State Senate) was $1.051 billion; in the 2016 budget, it was $1.9 billion. But despite that dramatic increase in spending, many of our roads and bridges remain in bad condition because spending decisions are made by a politically motivated and legislatively controlled state agency. Instead of debating ways to take more money from taxpayers, the legislature should focus on structural reforms to the South Carolina Department of Transportation, the state agency that makes the expenditure decisions.

Capital outlays by the SCDOT for new transportation projects are more than triple the amount spent for on repairs and routine maintenance, and that’s a direct consequence of legislators electing SCDOT commissioners and then insisting that money be spent on new projects, rather than repairs.

The necessary structural fix here is to have the governor appoint all of the SCDOT commissioners in order to establish a clear line of accountability for expenditure decisions. Better still, abolish the commission and have had expenditure decisions made by a cabinet-level Secretary of Transportation, appointed by and directly accountable to the governor. That way the voters can hold an elected official directly accountable for the wise or unwise spending of their money.

Also, any serious plan to address our state’s transportation situation must include devolving control over some roads to local governments. There are approximately 65,800 miles of roads in South Carolina, and 63% of them are controlled by the state; by way of comparison, other state transportation departments (on average) control only 19% of roads.

The fix here is for the state to transfer a significant portion of those road miles to local governments, along with an appropriate share of existing gas-tax revenue. Local governments would have better knowledge than a centralized entity of local road conditions, and their proximity and accountability to the citizens who use the roads in their borders would ensure a more productive expenditure of dollars.

The easy – but incredibly destructive – answer to fixing the condition of our state’s roads and bridges is to raise taxes; it takes far more thought, effort and political backbone to spending existing money more wisely. But the people of South Carolina shouldn’t expect anything less from their elected officials.

Marriage as a crucial and indispensable social institution (and for me, as a Catholic, a sacrament involving one man and one woman) can and will survive and thrive without the coercive power of the state. In my opinion, government ought to get out of the marriage business entirely — save, however, for the adjudication of the parties' respective rights and obligations upon its dissolution, just as the judicial system adjudicates other breaches of contract.

“Spending fails to provide students with the opportunity to obtain a minimally adequate education,” the South Carolina Supreme Court found in the Abbeville case. “Rather, the evidence demonstrates that there is a clear disconnect between spending and results.”

If we want to improve our system of free public education in South Carolina – and I do – we have to start doing something more than simply spending more money. (Currently, our state ranks in the upper half of states in our nation in terms of per-pupil funding, but in the lower half in terms of academic achievement).

Voucher and charter school programs that allow public education dollars to follow the student to the school of their parents' choosing will improve our system of public education. Choice breeds competition. It creates a powerful incentive for schools to get better, while at the same time creating much-needed options for children trapped in less than satisfactory schools.

A recent evaluation of the school choice program in Washington, D.C. found that using a voucher to attend a private school significantly improved students' chances of graduating from high school, increasing graduation rates by 21 percentage points.

School choice is also a way out of the poverty cycle for low-income families. As the Wall Street Journal noted in 2010, 2,000 of the nation's 20,000 high schools produce roughly 50 percent of all dropouts, and African-American children have a 50/50 chance of having to attend one of these so-called "dropout factories."

In Washington, D.C., the 41 percent of students who attend charter schools learn the equivalent of 72 days more in reading and 101 days more in math each year than similar students attending district schools, according to a Stanford University study.

Despite its overwhelming success, many of the leaders in our system of public education see school choice not as an opportunity, but as a threat – to them. I have no patience for those who put their wants before students' needs.

In March 2016, one of my constituents had a letter published in the local newspaper critical of my blocking a 75% gas-tax hike. His letter evinces a sentiment unfortunately shared by many politicians in Columbia, that is, if only we took more money from the people, then all our problems could be solved -- roads would be repaired, kids would be better educated, people would be healthier, etc.

But I've learned, through my service in the legislative branch as a state senator and, prior to that, in the executive branch as the governor's chief of staff, that things aren't that simple. Raising taxes is easy, but I've learned it is necessary to do the harder thing, to spend time figuring out why, despite already ever-increasing levels of spending, we aren't getting better outcomes, the outcomes people deserve. And when, as is the case with our state's spending on roads and bridges, that inquiry reveals the inner-workings of a system of cronyism and horse-trading, then yes, I am going to insist on reforms to that system and block any proposal that simply increases taxes and dumps more money into it. That's always been the approach I've taken when it comes to spending the people's money, and it always will be.

Another constituent wrote me a letter a few years ago that claimed my desire to cap state-government spending betrays ignorance of the role government plays in the economy. “When the state spends money, that money goes into the economy to pay salaries, purchase goods, pay for services, etc.” he wrote. “It is the same as when I spend money.” Of course government spending affects the economy. And when it spends taxpayers’ money on the essential things only government can do, the affect is positive. But when government decides, as it always does, to do more, it is a mistake to assume public and private spending are the same. Land, labor, and capital-goods factors are all scarce, and society benefits when they are put to their most-productive use. Private individuals, guided by the free market to produce what consumers need, always spend money more productively than politicians and bureaucrats.

In South Carolina, when he presents himself to vote, he or she must provide a valid and current photo ID. I strongly believe that such is absolute necessary to ensure the integrity of our electoral process. First, the evidence suggests that attempts at voter fraud are increasing. On October 6, 2008, the New York Times – hardly a right-wing rag – reported that about 400,000 ACORN filings had been rejected by authorities as duplicates, incomplete, or fraudulent. Think about that, and then think about the recent elections that have been decided by bizarrely slim margins.

Second, there seems to be a new “winning at all costs” subculture taking root. A few days before the Massachusetts special senate election, the host of a program on MSNBC said this: “I tell you what, if I lived in Massachusetts, I'd try to vote ten times. I don't know if they'd let me or not, but I'd try to. Yeah, that's right, I'd cheat to keep these bastards out. I would. Because that's exactly what they are.”

For the past few years, I have served as Gov. Nikki Haley’s representative on the South Carolina Military Base Task Force, which she created by executive order on December 22, 2011. Through serving on that Task Force, I learned that BRAC, in future base closing deliberations, will consider whether a base is located in a state that has addressed ten particular “quality-of-life” issues unique to military families. I have sponsored bills that have passed by the legislature and been signed into law by the governor that accomplish all but one of those quality of life measures. They are:

  • A bill that allows members of the military and their spouse and dependents to vote by absentee ballot in all elections
  • A bill to increase protections for military personnel against predatory lending
  • A bill to make it easier for military spouses to transfer professional license
  • A bill to extend property-tax exemption to property used for military housing
  • A bill to provide Medicaid waiver protections to in-state members of the armed service
  • A bill to improve communications between state child welfare agencies and the local installations (working with the state Department of Health and Human Services)
  • A bill to promote affordable child care for military children (by working with the state Department of Social Services)
  • A bill to create a task force to identify issues related to military-connected children
  • A bill that commissions an annual report re: the performance of military-connected children who attend our schools
  • A bill that creates a Veterans Treatment Court that seeks to habilitate veterans by diverting them from the traditional criminal justice system
  • A bill to provide in-state tuition rates for military personnel and dependents
I am proud that South Carolina ranks #1 in the nation in enacting laws that enhance the quality of life of our military community and recognize the unique challenges those families face.