U.S. lawmakers gather for S.C. Chamber of Commerce’s Washington Night town hall
Congressional delegates and local business leaders gathered in Columbia on Wednesday afternoon for a town hall event organized by the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. The elected officials began by joking about rounds of golf played with one another but talks soon turned to the nation’s budget, energy dependence and other issues affecting South Carolina.
Invited guests to Washington Night in South Carolina included U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan, Mick Mulvaney, Tom Rice, Mark Sanford and Joe Wilson. Also invited but unable to attend were U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Reps. James Clyburn and Trey Gowdy.
Washington Night in South Carolina allowed the legislators to talk openly and candidly about national and global issues and what they’re doing to solve problems as a part of Congress. They began by discussing what they think is the single most important issue in 2014.
Graham and Wilson agreed that federal budget cuts by the U.S. Department of Energy to the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication project is negatively impacting South Carolina workers. The state is in a legal battle over the MOX facility, and Gov. Nikki Haley estimated the jobs of 1,800 Aiken residents are in peril. Graham said resolving the situation is his No. 1 priority.
“We need to get the MOX facility up and running … it will be good for South Carolina,” he said.
Wilson said the shrinking military defense budget is an area he’s fighting to remedy.
“This will hollow out the military … and gives false encouragement (to other nations),” he said.
Sanford said he sees an inequality in governmental power as doing the most harm.
“We need to go back to a balance of power as configured by the Founding Fathers,” he said. “Executive prerogative is at a new level … and there will be implications on the budget.”
Rice said there’s “uncertainty in Washington” and the result is fewer jobs coming to the country. He said initiatives like tax reform and relying more on sustainable energy must be made a priority in order to attract investment.
“Companies continue to go the other way,” he said.
Duncan also said he thinks energy independence should be kept at the forefront. He said South Carolina can play a role if offshore drilling if allowed.
“We are a great energy-producing state, but we can do more,” he said.
Rounding out the panel’s opening remarks, Mulvaney focused on the nation’s growing debt and mandatory spending.
“We put ourselves at risk,” he said. “We have to break this addiction to spending.”
Lexington County voters will decide this November whether to accept a tax increase that can fund infrastructure improvements like road repairs and sidewalks. Richland County implemented a similar tax in 2012. On Wednesday, the legislators were asked what they think is the solution to seeing the reauthorization of federal money for state road and bridge projects.
Graham said the condition of South Carolina’s roads aren’t what they should be and remarked that he’d forgotten how bad some sections are until he was driving to the event. He also noted today’s cars are going farther on a gallon of gas and that the country’s gas tax system is becoming outdated as a result.
“We need to redesign funding … how we drive is changing,” he said.
Rice said he has seen many proposals on how to make up the decreasing gas tax revenue stream but that he doesn’t plan on backing an increase to the gas tax rate right now. He said his reasoning stems from the economy’s steady, but still slow, recovery.
“We’re already taking so much out of people’s pockets,” he said.
Duncan referenced offshore drilling again and said he sees that as a possible long-term solution if natural gas or oil is found. He said he would push for revenue from any natural resources discovered to be committed to infrastructure improvements for the first decade.
Graham said redirecting revenue back into the U.S. Highway Trust Fund, which is supplied by the gas tax, is something that already is getting growing bipartisan support as a way to better fund improvements to roads, bridges and ports.
“The one thing to look for in 2014 is repatriating corporate overseas earnings,” he said.
Wednesday’s town hall followed an infrastructure forum held by the S.C. Chamber for state legislators in February.