The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce should continue to lobby the Legislature for more money for education and to replace aging roads and bridges, local leaders said Wednesday.
Speaker after speaker made eloquent pleas for more funding and cooperation in education.
Dean Faile, president of the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce, was more abrupt. The Legislature, he said, needs to raise the gas tax. South Carolina’s tax has not been raised in years, and it is not supporting the cost of maintaining the state’s roads.
“I understand the needs of business,” he said, adding he didn’t want to pay any more for gas, but “it’s got to be done.”
While the Legislature set aside $600 million in infrastructure funding including $50 million for one-time funds for bridge repairs during the 2013 session, there is a $29 billion shortfall over the next 20 years in infrastructure funding, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Wednesday’s meeting was the fourth of 10 the state chamber is holding throughout the state to set its legislative agenda for the 2014 session which begins in January.
About 120 business leaders, educators and elected leaders attended Wednesday meeting sponsored by the chamber of commerce offices in Chester, Clover, York Lake Wylie, Lancaster and the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Robbie Barnett, associate vice president of workforce, education and manufacturing policy for the state chamber, set the tone for Wednesday’s meeting. He said the state chamber’s goals included a state high school graduation rate of 85 percent – it was 74.9 percent in 2012 – a bigger push for early reading programs and childhood education programs, particularly expanding the 4K program, and “developing a culture of valuing education.”
Jayne Marie Comstock, the new president of Winthrop University, said that increasing the graduation rate should also increase the rate of college attainment in the state. That rate of students continuing their education, however, has been dropping because of the increasing cost of tuition, she said. She said as state funding goes down for higher education, tuition rates have to rise.
Vernon Prosser, superintendent of York schools, urged the Legislature to fully fund the base student costs. Currently, he said the per student cost funded by the state is $2,101 while the cost is $2,800. He also said public school money should go to public schools, not to things such as school vouchers.
“If you take out that money we can’t do the things that will make a difference,” he said.
Brent Jeffcoat, a Columbia-based lawyer with the firm Pope Zeigler, said changes need to made in the debt students amass in seeking their college degrees. He said one option would be to have a robust cooperative education program. He said the state should offer incentives for businesses willing to offer cooperative programs.
Kim Johnson of the United Way of York County said that funding for early childhood education and higher education is needed, but it was “the middle schoolers that fall into the gap.”
She said more funding for programs for middle school children would help, but more could be done by “leveraging human capital,” getting more people to volunteer their time to “solve our own problems.”