South Carolina likes to bill itself as one of the most military-friendly states in the country. But the Palmetto State trails its neighbors when it comes to legislation to make life easier for active-duty service members and more attractive to retirees — a deficiency that could have a big impact on an industry that pumps $15.7 billion into the state’s economy each year.
The U.S. Department of Defense lists 10 pieces of legislation dealing with military quality-of-life issues that it would like states to adopt – a list that will be used by the Pentagon when the next round of base closures and realignments is considered, perhaps as soon as 2015.
Virginia leads nearby states, having passed seven of the 10 laws. Florida has adopted six of the measures; North Carolina, five; and, Georgia, four. South Carolina trails the pack with three.
But that could change soon, as three more initiatives on the list are winding their way through the State House, with seemingly enough momentum to pass.
“It’s a competition,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a sponsor of the bills and an S.C. Army National Guard captain who has led troops in ground combat in Afghanistan. “And when we face another BRAC, we will be in competition with those other states.”
‘Attitude . . . is an important criteria’
The list – online at USA4militaryfamilies.org – deals with such issues as granting in-state college tuition, transferring training certification and property tax relief.
“Most of them don’t cost anything,” said William “Dutch” Holland, a retired two-star Air Force general who is executive coordinator of the S.C. Military Base Task Force, appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to protect the state’s bases from any upcoming round of military base closings, commonly called BRAC. “They are really about quality of life.”
In previous legislative sessions, the state has adopted three 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
Those are a start, said Ike McLeese, chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, who also is the state’s civilian aide to the secretary of the Army.
McLeese noted service members and their families represent 1 percent of the nation’s population. “And we ask them to go into harm’s way so the other 99 percent can go about their business,” he said. “So this is a way of showing appreciation for that.”
But more practically, he said, “when the BRAC commission is looking where to cut, community attitude toward the military is an important criteria.”
South Carolina has a lot at stake, according to a study conducted last year by the S.C. Department of Commerce.
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.
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 $3.378 billion in economic impact.
In the Midlands, Fort Jackson in Columbia supports 19,834 jobs and generates $2.012 billion in economic impact, while Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter has 16,445 jobs and a $1.752 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.
Passing additional legislation to support those military personnel and the jobs they represent “is the right thing to do and will pay huge dividends, economically, for our state,” said Rep. Smith.
‘Good for the whole state’
That South Carolina will take a hit in the next round of base closings is almost inevitable.
The military 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 – mandated after last August’s 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 already in place. 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.
Knowing that, Palmetto State lawmakers are ratcheting up action on three more bills on the Defense Department’s quality-of-life list:
• Granting licensing and academic credit for military training. Essentially, it means that if the U.S. Army has taught you how to drive a truck, you shouldn’t have to go through another round of training and licensing. Your military credentials would, in effect, transfer to the civilian world.
• Eliminating the one-year waiting time for in-state tuition for service members leaving the military. If a service member wants to attend USC or another state school, he or she would not have to wait to receive in-state tuition. The move would help keep former service members and their talents and paychecks in the state.
• Establishing veterans’ treatment courts in each county. These special judges and court officials would be well-versed in conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic-brain injuries, and would be able to steer veterans charged with non-violent offenses into care and counseling for their underlying conditions, instead of jails and prisons.
The three pieces of legislation appear headed toward passage.
A licensing bill passed the state Senate 43-0 and is being considered in the House; a similar House bill passed 108-0 and is in the Senate.
Also, a veterans court bill passed the House 114-0, and an in-state tuition bill has passed the House 110-0.
State Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, who sponsored the licensing bill in the Senate, predicts passage.
“There is great support in this state for our military and (the bills) are prime examples of that,” he said. “It goes across party lines and it goes across regional lines. Supporting the military is good for the whole state.”