COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina considers itself one of the most military-friendly states in the nation.
But the Palmetto State has only embraced half of the 10 legislative initiatives that the U.S. Department of Defense uses to measure quality of life for active duty service members, veterans and retirees.
That deficiency could have a big impact on an industry that pumps $15.7 billion into the state’s economy each year, because the list could be used when the next round of base closings and realignments is considered, perhaps as soon as next year.
“It means real jobs and real dollars,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a major in the S.C. Army National Guard who has led troops in ground combat in Afghanistan. “This continues to be a competition with other states for military installations and military investment.
Virginia leads nearby states on the checklist, having made significant progress on seven of the 10 laws, according to Defense. Florida has passed or is near passage on six. South Carolina is tied with North Carolina and Georgia with five each.
But the Palmetto State could jump to the top of the list if bills now in the General Assembly pass muster. Among them are:
• Establishing Veteran Treatment Courts, which are staffed by judges and prosecutors who have specialized understanding of issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
• Waiving a one-year waiting period for separating service members to receive in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
• Creating a military student identifier that provides data on military students’ progress.
“Many of these initiatives are not that costly,” said Bill Bethea, a Bluffton attorney who now heads the S.C. Military Base Task Force, which is appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to protect and expand missions and bases in the state. “They’re low-hanging fruit.”
But Kevin Bruch, who is the Charleston-based Department of Defense regional state liaison for the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia, said any price tag often slows the process.
“If there is fiscal vote attached to it there are challenges because money is tight everywhere,” he said. “All the states are doing what they can; but, there is always room for improvement.”
S.C. has adopted 5 initiatives
The list – which is online at usa4militaryfamilies.org – deals with such issues as granting in-state college tuition, transferring training certification and property tax relief.
In previous legislative sessions, the state has adopted five initiatives listed by the Defense Department:
• A law that makes it easier for military spouses to transfer their professional licenses from other states when their husband or wife in the military is posted here
• Increased protections for military personnel against predatory lending
• Improved absentee voting
• Better access to affordable childcare
• Credit for military training and certification when receiving professional licenses
And in addition, the General Assembly is considering some other initiatives beyond those called for by the Defense Department.
For instance, a bill is pending that would extend the state income tax waiver for active duty military personnel to retirees. The bill would make the state more attractive to service members, many of whom are in their 50s, are well-trained and will move into a second career.
“He’s going to buy a house, spend money on groceries, send his kids to college,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen William “Dutch” Holland, executive director of the Shaw-Sumter Partnership for Progress Office. “The payback from the revenue generated will be two- or three-fold.”
Base closings likely
But base closure is the big fear.
With the war in Iraq over and direct U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan set to end in December, the military is bracing for big cutbacks.
The Pentagon faces $500 billion in across-the-board cuts over the next 10 years. Those cuts, part of the $1.2 trillion in overall "sequester" cuts – half to the military, half to domestic spending – were mandated after the August 2012 debt-ceiling debacle.
The cuts come on top of $487 billion in reductions already targeted for the Pentagon. Together, the cuts equal about 18 percent of the 2012 defense budget.
It is doubtful that the Pentagon can make those numbers by furloughing civilian workers, grounding flyovers and limiting training alone – measures it periodically put in last year. Instead, to make the budget cuts, the military likely will ask Congress for permission to conduct another round of base closings, which could occur as soon as 2015.
South Carolina will have a lot at stake.
The state has four major military communities - Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort - a large National Guard presence statewide, more than 50,000 military retirees and a substantial number of defense contractors, many clustered in the Upstate.
“We all know (the importance of the military) intrinsically,” Holland said. “And it’s across the state, not just in our military communities.”
Billions of dollars in should be motivation enough
Joint Base Charleston is the state’s most lucrative installation, with more than 38,000 jobs and an annual economic impact of $4.35 billion, followed by the Space and Naval Warfare Command Center in nearby Hanahan, which supports 27,492 jobs and generates $3.38 billion in economic impact.
In the Midlands, Fort Jackson in Columbia supports 19,834 jobs and generates $2.01 billion in economic impact, while Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter has 16,445 jobs and a $1.75 billion impact. McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover kicks in another 2,303 jobs and generates $296 million in economic impact.
In Beaufort, the Marine Corps Air Station supports 8,544 jobs and produces $702 million in annual economic development and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island has 5,307 jobs and $594 million in economic impact. The Naval Hospital in Port Royal contributes another 1,591 jobs and $167 million in economic impact.
The S.C. Army National Guard, based in Columbia but operating from armories around the state, supports 12,318 jobs and generates $697 million in economic impact.
Defense contractors added another 5,800 jobs and account for about 2 percent of the gross state product each year.
Pension payments to the state’s 56,000 military retirees total $1.3 billion a year in economic impact.
That should be motivation for lawmakers to take the Defense Department’s list seriously, state Rep. Smith said.
“We’ve always been patriotic people in South Carolina,” he said. “We just have a few more things we need to get done.”
Department of Defense check list
The Pentagon judges quality of life for military members in states by this list of laws, which will be taken into account as the government decides upcoming base closings. South Carolina is tied or trails its neighbors in passing or making serious progress in adopting the legislative agenda. Here’s a look at the laws and where S.C. stands:
Allowing service members to receive licenses and academic credit for military education, training and experience (passed 2012)
Allowing military spouses to carry their professional licenses into the state and receive unemployment compensation (passed 2012)
Develop veterans’ treatment courts open to eligible veterans and service members throughout the state (passed the House in 2013, pending in the Senate)
Increase access to quality, affordable child care for military families (passed 2013)
Promote consumer protections and enforcement of the predatory lending regulation (passed in 2013)
Allow service members to retain their earned priority for receiving Medicaid home and community care waivers (introduced in Senate in 2013)
Improve absentee voting for military members and their families (passed 2012)
Waive required waiting time to establish residency for separating service members to obtain in-state tuition rate (pending in Senate Education Committee)
Assign an identifier for military children in education data systems (introduced in Senate in 2013)
Create agreement between Pentagon and the state child welfare agency to standardize relationships (no action)
SOURCES: usa4militaryfamilies.com, S.C. Military Base Task Force