December 30, 2012

What happened this year, what to expect in 2013

It was a year marked by several hot-button issues and controversies, from Richland County’s botched election to the hacking scandal that compromised personal information of millions of South Carolina taxpayers. Here, a look back at some of the big news stories in 2012 – and a look at what’s ahead.


Looking back...

Absence of ethics: Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, R-Florence, resigned in the spring and entered a guilty plea to ethics violations, elevating longtime state Senate power Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. Also, more than 250 candidates statewide were tossed off primary and general election ballots for failing to file their financial disclosure forms properly, frustrating Tea Party Republicans intent on turning out GOP incumbents. Finally, the S.C. House Ethics Committee twice heard allegations that Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, used her position, as a state representative, to financially benefit herself or her employer. Haley – whose lawyer argued, essentially, everybody does it and S.C. law is too vague – was cleared both times. The question going forward: Do all the ethics allegations affect South Carolina’s largely one-party (GOP) political system?

Cutting state costs: While the federal government was reluctant to address long-term entitlement issues, state lawmakers passed legislation to cut the costs of the retirement system for public-sector workers, including state and local government workers, teachers and law enforcement officers. One change? In the future, most of those workers will have to work longer – 30 years vs. 28 – before they can retire. But addressing the cost of state workers’ benefits is not over. Next up? Ensuring those workers pay more of their health-care costs, a move passed by the state budget board – at the behest of Haley – that now is in court. Haley says she wants to ensure that there is no friction between Great Recession-strapped taxpayers and the benefits those taxpayers finance for public-sector workers. Cynics suggest beating up public-sector workers is good politics.

Goodbye, Sen. No: Jim DeMint was a U.S. House and Senate backbencher until the former PR executive began denouncing congressional earmarks – which direct federal money to home-state projects with little debate – as back-scratching political corruption. DeMint subsequently rocketed to right-wing Republican stardom, becoming “Sen. Tea Party” as he embodied frustration with, what he said was, out-of-control federal spending. But DeMint’s attempts to elect other ultraconservatives to the Senate nationally were a mixed bag. Then, after Democratic President Barack Obama was re-elected, DeMint stunned South Carolina by saying he would resign to become head of a conservative think-tank that pays its president more than $1 million a year. U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, another Tea Party favorite, was appointed to succeed DeMint. When he takes office, Scott will be the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction.

Looking ahead...

Ethics reform: Having emerged from her own ethics crucible, Haley says she wants to strengthen the state’s ethics laws, naming a commission that will join S.C. House and Senate panels in making proposals. Should lawmakers have to tell who they work for and how much they are paid – and any conflicts of interest? Should political committees have to disclose who their donors are – and their agendas? Should the state’s open-records law, which purports to ensure the public knows what is going on, be strengthened – and agencies and officials that stonewall be held to account? Stay tuned.

Expanding Medicaid: Hospitals and others want to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health-insurance program for the poor, saying the influx of federal money that initially would pay for that expansion would be a multibillion-dollar windfall to the state’s economy, creating thousands of jobs. Opponents, including Haley, say the expansion, part of “Obamacare,” commits the state to an open-ended financial obligation that it cannot afford. Those watching will include hundreds of thousands of low-income South Carolinians. They now go too often to hospital emergency rooms for “free” care that taxpayers end up paying for.

Resolving the hack: Hackers stole the financial information of millions of S.C. businesses, taxpayers and their dependents this year from the state Revenue Department, including Social Security, credit card and bank account numbers. The state’s cost to “insure” the hacking victims already is $20-plus million. That cost could become a recurring $10-plus million budget item to the state. How will the hacking be resolved – if it can – and what steps will be taken to ensure the safety of state computer systems?

Elections: To bolster voter participation, city of Columbia elections, originally set for the spring of 2014, will be held in November. On the ballot for re-election presumably will be Mayor Steve Benjamin, the city’s first African-American leader. Also, while they won’t be on the ballot for another year, candidates for governor and, unusually, two U.S. Senate seats will be warming up for 2014. Democrats think Republican Haley, wounded by the ethics allegations and hacking incident, is vulnerable. Some Republicans think U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca is too moderate. And Sen.-designee Scott will have to face voters statewide for the first time.


Looking back...

Election Day disaster: Voting machine shortages. Waits of up to seven hours for voters – and countless others unable to cast ballots. Legal actions and election protests. And uncounted ballots discovered after results were certified. So far, calls for the resignation of elections director Lillian McBride – whose taxpayer-funded salary of $89,124 is nearly as much as the chief of the State Election Commission – have gone unheeded. And nearly eight weeks after the Nov. 6 election, McBride still has not offered explanations about why things went so wrong. Voters are still waiting.

Penny passes: After a failed attempt in 2010, county voters approved a plan Nov. 6 to raise the sales tax by a penny-on-the-dollar, to 8 percent, to fund a massive transportation improvement program. Over the 22-year life of the tax, it will raise $1.07 billion for roads, public transit, sidewalks, bike lanes and nature trails.

A deal on SOBs: Richland County decided against enforcing the law on sexually oriented businesses, instead working out a deal allowing Platinum Plus to stay open even though it apparently does not meet the county’s land-use zoning law. The club threatened to move to Bluff Road, a legal site most members couldn’t tolerate. The compromise: The owners will close another club on Bush River Road at I-26.

Top post: Milton Pope, the county’s first African-American administrator, left his job in March as contract negotiations and a performance evaluation were set to begin. The council recently chose Tony McDonald, his second-in-command, to take over as the county’s top manager.

Looking ahead...

Penny in action: With the new penny tax, the real work begins. Richland voters should begin to see the expansion of bus service and lots of road construction this summer. A countywide, citizen “watchdog” committee, keeping an eye on project progress, should be in place by the end of January.

Ask, and receive? After five years of economic recession, agency heads seem to sense a climate for tax increases. The Richland County Library and the county Recreation Commission both have floated balloons for 2013, while Riverbanks Zoo already got the go-ahead.

Tournament park: The departure of two of its biggest advocates injects uncertainty into the 7-year-old plan to build a tournament park in Northeast Richland. County Council has invested more than $7.3 million in the project, which the 11-member council has pared back to soccer only. Still, some members continue to raise concerns.


Looking back...

Sewer woes: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is coming down hard on the city for neglecting the upkeep of its sewer system, which suffers frequent sewage spills in violation of federal pollution law. The crackdown comes as many city water and sewer customers are complaining about rates that this summer doubled and tripled some monthly bills. The city is working with its largest commercial users to lessen the burden of that increase. But the money from the fees goes to system improvements, and the EPA has warned city officials not to reduce its commitment to improvements. Sources say the pending fine could be as high as $1.5 million.

Are TIFS out? Among the things that will be paid for by the county’s additional penny-on-the-dollar sales tax are road improvements in some downtown areas. Voters’ approval of the penny has cast major doubts on whether City Council should proceed with separate plans to activate two special tax districts to help pay for roads, parks, sidewalks and water and sewer lines along the Congaree River and in the new Bull Street neighborhood. Some say it’s the death knell for the tax increment finance, or TIF, districts.

Looking ahead...

Elections: The city could have some new leadership after November – or not. City Council in 2012 backed away from switching Columbia’s part-time mayor form of government to a strong-mayor form after many residents didn’t seem to want it. City Council did, however, move city elections from April of even-numbered years to November of odd-numbered years, bringing the city in line with most other South Carolina municipalities. The change meant all council members lost about six months of their current terms. Up in November are seats held by Mayor Steve Benjamin, citywide councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine and district council members Sam Davis and Leona Plaugh.

City manager: Without a move to a full-time mayor, the most powerful job in city government will continue to be that of city manager. With Steve Gantt retiring in June, City Council offered the top job this week to assistant city manager Teresa Wilson, who has overseen economic development initiatives for the city and helped revamp the troubled Community Development Department, which had lost its ability to issue federal Commerce Department loans. If Wilson accepts the job, she will work side by side with Gantt until he leaves. She’ll face tough issues. Among them: rebuilding the city’s water and sewer systems, further energizing Main Street, managing details of the Bull Street development and figuring out how to distribute the city’s hospitality tax on prepared foods to competing arts and community groups.


Looking back...

A successful challenge: With help from Haley, Katrina Shealy ousted long-time rival State Sen. Jake Knotts. Shealy was the only one of eight petition candidates in the county to win. A plethora of independent challenges launched by Republicans came after a legal challenge by Knotts allies led to about 250 candidates statewide being kicked off primary election ballots for reporting personal income incorrectly.

Gambling: Lexington Town councilman Danny Frazier remains in office despite a furor over his involvement with sweepstakes betting, but he lost jobs with West Columbia and the sheriff’s department. Sheriff James Metts returned donations from such sources.

Chapin High: Renovations are finally under way at the overcrowded and outdated school after Lexington-Richland 5 school board member Kim Murphy spent nearly two years trying to stop the project. Her unsuccessful challenge set back efforts to limit building in environmentally sensitive areas.

Looking ahead...

New tax: County and municipal leaders are looking at road renovations, new sewer lines and other improvements that would be accomplished with a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax. It’s a prelude to submitting a package to voters for approval as soon as fall 2014.

Local elections: Voters in 10 municipalities will pick local leaders in November. Mayoral races loom in Batesburg-Leesville, Chapin, Lexington, Pelion, Pine Ridge, Springdale and Swansea. Elections in Gaston and Gilbert will occur earlier.

New high schools: River Bluff High near Lexington and Spring Hill High in the Dutch Fork area open in late summer.


Looking back...

Gambling: From the Rachel Duncan embezzlement case to the Parker family shooting in Irmo to raids on Internet sweepstakes parlors, illegal gambling ruled crime news.

Duncan, the former accountant of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, embezzled nearly $500,000 and is serving a 2½-year federal prison sentence. She stole the money to support an addiction to online poker games.

Irmo resident Brett Parker was charged with two counts of murder in July for the shooting deaths of his wife, Tammy Jo Parker, and family friend Bryan Capnerhurst. The two were found dead in the upstairs of the Parker home in the upscale Ascot Estates subdivision. Richland County Sheriff’s investigators have said Parker ran a large sports betting operation. As part of the investigation, three other men were convicted in federal court of operating an illegal gambling ring.

Finally, internet sweepstakes games arrived in the Midlands as the operators challenge a perceived loophole in the state’s gambling laws. The S.C. attorney general and State Law Enforcement Division chief say the games are illegal. But some magistrate judges have ruled them legal. The controversy over the games ensnared a group of Lexington County politicians, including Sheriff James Metts, who returned campaign contributions from game operators.

Looking ahead...

To the State House: Internet sweepstakes games will receive attention from the S.C. General Assembly where at least one bill already has been filed to close a loophole in the state’s gambling laws. However, the gambling industry always has a high-powered lobbyist presence and money talks in the legislature.

A tangled practice. It may be months still before the extent of the problems are known with the legal practice of prominent Lexington County attorney Richard Breibart. Breibart was charged in September with extortion, mail fraud and wire fraud. Federal prosecutors say he got money from clients by threatening them with criminal charges or civil penalties that did not exist. Two clients have filed civil suits against him.


Looking back...

Improvement on the housing front: After the crash of the Great Depression, housing sales – in the Midlands and in South Carolina – spent 2012 registering double-digit gains from 2011 due, in large part, to low interest rates and more reasonable prices. Perhaps more importantly, future indicators turned up, including contracts to buy homes and permits to build new homes, a job-intensive activity.

Slow improvement on the jobs front: After starting the year at almost 11 percent, the state’s jobless rate ducked below 9 percent in the fall. However, job creation remained naggingly slow.

Green shoots in new businesses: Whole Foods may be “Whole Paycheck” to its critics. But the upscale grocer does not bet on losing markets. Its September opening in Columbia was a vote of confidence in the Midlands market and the area’s newest “Golden Retail Triangle,” extending from Garners Ferry to Beltline and Trenholm to Fort Jackson. In other votes of confidence, new retailers and restaurants bet on Columbia’s revitalized Main Street.

Looking ahead...

Some certainty would help: Resolving the fiscal cliff and soon-to-follow debt-ceiling debate could give businesses, including many in the Midlands, the clarity that they say they want to move forward with hiring and expansion plans. The state Commerce Department’s new-job announcements in 2012, for example, lagged 2010 and 2011 announcements. Why? Uncertainty about future tax rates and treatments, according to some. Alternately, there is a scary possibility: Major corporations, sitting on huge amounts of cash, find the austere “new normal” really is to their liking.

Whither government spending: Cuts to future military spending, for example, could hurt South Carolina – with major bases in Columbia, Sumter, Charleston and Beaufort County – badly. Does the Marine Corps, for instance, need air bases in both Carolinas? Or two basic training depots – one on Parris Island, the other in California? Does it make sense to have air bases a dozen miles apart – at McEntire and Sumter? If big cuts come, S.C. jobs and the state’s economy could be hurt.

The debate about health-care spending also will affect the Midlands and South Carolina. Should Medicaid, the joint federal-state health-insurance program for the low income, be expanded? Hospitals and others say expanding the program would be an economic windfall to South Carolina, a comparatively poor state. Others fret that expansion, initially to be paid for entirely by the federal government, would become a long-term drain on the state’s finances as the state has to pick up more of the tab.

More green shoots: Trader Joe’s is scheduled to open on Forest Drive in that new “Golden Triangle.” Also, land has been cleared for major retail development on Killian Road in Northeast Richland, already transformed into a new “Auto Mile” of dealerships. The green shoot that will matter the most, however, is not one new “cult” retailer or development. It is consistent, strong job creation.


Looking back...

Templeton takes over DHEC: Labor lawyer Catherine Templeton became director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, replacing long-time chief Earl Hunter. Templeton riled state senators when she initially laid off some staffers and brought in a team of highly paid advisers, but she later drew praise for shaking up the often-criticized agency. Many long-time staffers retired or quit.

Rosewood pollution: After The State reported that an asphalt plant wants to expand in a Columbia neighborhood, state regulators found yards in the nearby community tainted with toxic lead and arsenic. The pollution had apparently been there for generations, prompting a federal cleanup in parts of the Edisto Court neighborhood.

Pelion sewage: In a rare move, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control took steps to deny a new permit for a Pelion sewage dump with a history of neighborhood complaints. Before the decision was final, the C.E. Taylor company announced it would shut down for good. The site sits atop nitrate-tainted groundwater in a community that relies on wells for drinking water.

Lee County landfill: In a rare if not unprecedented decision, a federal jury in South Carolina awarded neighbors of a massive landfill $2.3 million in damages for odors they said hurt their quality of life. Operators of the Bishopville-area landfill, a mega waste site that takes coast from Northeastern states, appealed the decision. Other neighbors have since sued for damages, too.

SCE&G coal ash cleanup: SCE&G settled a lawsuit by environmentalists and agreed to cleanup some 2 million tons of toxic coal sludge from waste ponds at its power plant along the Wateree River of Lower Richland. The coal waste had leaked arsenic into groundwater and allowed the toxin to trickle into the river near Eastover.

Looking ahead...

Solar power: A coalition of ministers and environmentalists is expected to push lawmakers to make solar panels easier to install on homes, churches and charities. A bill is expected to be introduced in the Legislature. South Carolina has some of the nation’s least-friendly solar laws.

Savannah dredging: A federal decision is expected on whether the U.S. government will ignore South Carolina’s opposition to dredging the harbor at Savannah. The S.C. Supreme Court overturned a state environmental permit approved for the port. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seeking federal approval not to recognize the state permit and proceed with the $650 million project. Critics say the project will hurt the environment and set back Charleston’s effort to deepen its own port.

Nuclear waste: The U.S. Department of Energy will consider more funding for a major construction project that is vital to cleaning up deadly atomic waste at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex near Aiken. The salt waste processing facility is years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over its original projected cost.

Permit backlog: The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is trying to clear a backlog of some 500 environmental permits. The question is how much progress the agency will make in 2013.

Rosewood pollution: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will try to find companies to reimburse taxpayers for the pollution cleanup in Columbia’s Edisto Court neighborhood. The companies have ties to an industrial site thought to be the source of the neighborhood contamination. The EPA has said the cleanup cost is expected to top $500,000.

Contributing: Tim Flach, Sammy Fretwell, Dawn Hinshaw, Noelle Phillips, staff reports

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