South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has made it a goal in 2017 to visit every county in the state.
He fulfilled that promise to himself Monday after stopping through Lee and Clarendon County.
“Y’all are the last county, but that doesn’t mean y’all are the least,” said Graham to various public officials who stopped by the Manning Fire Department for a roundtable with the four-term senator.
“The purpose of these visits is for me to figure out how my office can help you locally,” he said. “I have a list of things my office can’t do, but there are things that I can help with or help move along, and I want to keep up with those projects and hear from you.”
Graham said it is most important to him going into the next legislative session to keep the funding for Community Development Block Grants and other programs on which cities and counties rely for public infrastructure funds.
“My goal for 2017 is we want to have the same amount of money for these grants as we did last year,” he said. “I was a city and county attorney in another life, so I learned about unfunded mandates and liabilities. I learned about the projects that cities and counties work toward and use this funding for.”
Graham said that population is declining in rural counties, which makes it harder for them to compete nationally.
“How do you keep a workforce and, most importantly, how do you keep the young people around?” Graham said. “These are issues that face rural communities daily. I’m hopeful that getting some of these projects off the ground will help with these issues.”
Graham said one thing hurting local businesses is online sales which produce no sales tax.
“You’ve got a brick-and-mortar guy who is paying whatever fees there are, and selling things and having to have customers pay taxes,” said Graham. “Then, you’ve got someone selling online, and their customers don’t have to pay taxes. The brick-and-mortar business wil lose out. To keep downtown open and revenue open, we need to make sure that brick-and-mortar businesses are competitive against their online counterparts. It’s not fair for a person in the building to pay taxes and a person online not to.”
Sheriff Tim Baxley told Graham that the county has equipment needs in his field.
“We always need more law enforcement; there’s always more crime,” said Baxley. “We have 64 people total, including school resource officers and road deputies and courthouse security. Our objective is to keep our budget the same or decrease it, but never grow it.”
Baxley said it is difficult for the county to compete with outside law enforcement salaries in some instances.
“State agencies are paying $10,000 more than we can,” he said. “It’s also taking so long to get through the academy; we need some help on that end.”
Graham said that when he speaks to young people, he always tells them to do two things.
“Go into healthcare or go into law enforcement or education,” he said. “We are all going to retire and need someone to take care of us. Nursing will always be in demand. We are an aging population.”
Graham said that technical schools are the future of education.
“The goal is to create that workforce that industry wants to use,” Graham said. “If it wasn’t for technical schools in South Carolina, I don’t know what we’d do. But the best thing to do is generate jobs that provide healthcare, a 401K and retirement. That takes the pressure off Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security.
Graham suggested to Baxley and Clarendon County Council members that the county try a Local Option Sales Tax - a 1 penny tax voters would have to pass through a referendum - to provide funds for law enforcement.
“Lee County did that, and they got about $1.2 million,” said Graham.
County Administrator David Epperson told Graham the county already has a LOST, which provides a tax credit back to property owners.
“There’s counties that want a fire truck; everyone wants a fire truck,” Graham said. “A local option sales tax is one way to get that.”
Graham said the county’s medical footprint - McLeod Health Clarendon, specifically - looked good for the area.
In his hour-long talk, he bounced around from topic to topic, frequently discussing the need to fix the state’s dilapidated roads.
“We raised the gas tax for the first time in 30 years,” he said. “It’s a start, but we’re going to be using that money to fix the problems from the last 30 years. Where do we get the money for the next 30?”
Graham suggested a raise in the federal gas tax, along with toll roads in South Carolina.
“You also have to find a way for electric cars to pay their way when they’re not paying into the gas tax,” said Graham.
Graham said one of his goals in Congress is to help communities “get that prosperity off the coast and Interstate 85.”
“Everything on 85 is booming from Atlanta to Charlotte,” he said. “We also have a great coastal economy. We have some clusters inland, but not a lot. We’ve got to bring that all inland.”
Epperson told Graham about the county’s strong Economic Development Board.
“We recruit very heavily,” he said. “We’ve been trying to attract the spinoffs from Volvo and Boeing. Our Industrial Park has one speculative building available. We have a four-county megasite.”
Graham said he was impressed.
“Y’all are very progressive here,” he said. “You also have good technical schools here. You know, half the jobs my friends started on are all gone. We’ve got AI (artificial intelligence) coming. That’s different than automation. We’ve got a changing world, and we have to retool South Carolina for that changing economy. You have to leverage your assetts, and it looks like y’all are good at that.”
Graham said that most of his colleagues are unaware of programs like Community Block Development Grants and U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Grants.
“They’re just not aware of the impact,” he said. “You’d be amazed.”
Clarendon County Councilman Benton Blakely told Graham that his District 3 - which includes Turbeville, New Zion and other parts of eastern Clarendon County - was “the poorer side of the county.”
“But we pay the highest taxes,” he said. “Florence is booming. We need to put an emphasis on this and get some form of industry into Turbeville.”
Graham said it’s not his job to direct industry into one county over another.
“It’s your job to make the area palpable for those industries,” he said. “Eventually, the supply chain will move to these areas. Because they’ll have to. If you have a Megasite where you have affordable water, sewer and rail, you will have industries beating the door down.”
Manning Mayor Julia Nelson told Graham about the city’s activities, including its Retail Development Initiative, which has helped locate stores like Hibbett Sports to Manning.
Administrator Scott Tanner said the city is heavily invested in water and sewer.
“We’re getting ready to connect with Pinewood,” said Tanner. “They’ve had some issues there, so there are talks about us providing water to their community. We already provide water to Paxville.”
Tanner said the city has “certainly taken advantage of infrastructure opportunities.”
“We’ve purchased three vehicles recently,” he said. “It was a dollar-for-dollar match.”
Graham said that Clarendon and Manning had to be “the most grant savvy people I’ve met.”
Tanner and Epperson admitted both entities had benefited from public grants, particularly those through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Graham again suggested a local option sales tax.
“A local option sales tax would make other grants more likely,” he said.
Graham said that the federal government is looking at more infrastructure grants and awards, and he wants to make sure South Carolina counties are ready.
“We have projects that will be predominantly funded by date but rounded out by federal dollars, and we will get better reception than another state if we are more prepared,” Graham said.
He said he’s going to fight for local public entities’ budgets.
“You depend on these grants,” he said. “I have a good working relationship with Trump. Sometimes, we disagree. Your background forms your perception of the world, and my background was being a city and county attorney.”
Graham said he grew up in Central, a small town of about 1,500.
“It was a textile town,” he said. “I know what challenges the counties in South Carolina deal with.”
He told those gathered that the larger challenges for the country will be Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“We have a smaller population and we live a lot longer,” he said. “People will have to pay a little more and take a little bit less, and young people will have to work a bit longer.”
Graham asked both Baxley and Manning Police Chief Blair Shaffer about opioids.
“We’ve been very fortunate, but it’s coming,” said Baxley. “We’ve got Williamsburg and Orangeburg counties right next to us. And we have the interstate. It’s coming through here.”
Graham said the federal government will likely make “large appropriations for opioids going forward.”
“You’ve got people without a criminal record who get hooked on these pills,” Graham said. “We need to stop it from coming in, secure our borders and put people in jail for longer periods of time for selling it.”
Graham said that he’d like to see Interstate 95 remain drug-free.
“I’d like to make it where, if you’re traveling down Interstate 95, that’s the last place you want to be stopped if you’re a drug dealer,” he said.
“Through this drug epidemic, we’re losing a lot of young people who then can’t be in the workforce. They can’t contribute to society. We’ve got to fix this.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham was first elected to U.S. Senate in 2003. He can be reached at his Midlands Regional Office by calling (803) 933-0112. Visit www.lgraham.senate.gov/public for more information.