The interplay between state Sen. Dick Harpootlian and state Rep. Todd Rutherford was a bit less heated on Tuesday morning than it was a month ago, but the boisterous duo still didn't hold back when discussing issues related to their work in the Legislature.
The Columbia Chamber hosted a forum Tuesday at the main branch of the Richland Library, with Rutherford and Harpootlian on the bill to offer a legislative update. The pairing of the two Democratic Columbia attorneys came roughly a month after they had a heated exchange at a Richland County Legislative Delegation meeting. That calamitous back-and-forth came after veteran delegation staffer James Brown accused Harpootlian of berating him in a “profanity-laced outburst” over missing information in a news release sent by the delegation’s office.
However, both legislators defused the idea of a lingering battle at the outset of the Chamber's forum, with each noting their long friendship. They instead turned their attention to the General Assembly, which begins its 2020 session on Jan. 14.
Harpootlian says he intends to cast a sharp eye on the state budget in the coming year. The senator says he'll push for "total transparency" in the budget process.
"I plan on examining every line of the budget in great detail," says the first-term senator and former state Democratic Party chairman. "I have some folks who are going to work with me in the Senate on that. At the end of the day, what should we spend [state money] on? We should spend it on more than a 5 percent teacher's raise. We ought to spend it on kids who go home hungry every night. ... We ought to spend it on police officers and first responders.
"We should not spend that on giving hundreds of millions of dollars to billionaires so they'll bring a practice facility."
The senator was referencing the $115 million in tax incentives the Legislature approved last year for the NFL's Carolina Panthers, who plan to construct a practice facility and headquarters in York County. Harpootlian has been critical of that deal, and others in which corporations have received massive tax breaks and other goodies to start businesses in the Palmetto State.
"All the studies indicate these economic incentives that we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars on are not effective," Harpootlian offered.
Rutherford wasn't was as quick to decry incentives for major businesses, noting that the jobs they bring can be transformative for communities.
"I see what Boeing did to Charleston," Rutherford said. "I see what Volvo is doing to Nexton. Nexton, South Carolina, which I didn't know existed until two years ago, just got a Halls Chophouse. They can do that because Volvo is coming. They can do that because Boeing was there. But [economic incentives] don't all need to go to Charleston. Look at what BMW did for Greenville, and what I believe the Panthers will do for Rock Hill."
The state is looking at a potential $1.8 billion budget surplus for the coming year, and various agencies have been lining up to get a shot at the funding. When asked about that money at the Chamber forum, Rutherford says he has a hard time thinking of it as a "surplus."
"I think it's a misnomer to call it a 'budget surplus,'" said Rutherford, a 20-year veteran of the Legislature. "When you have a retirement system that is $30 billion in debt, when you have school needs, when you have state employee needs, I don't know how you call that money a surplus, but for the fact that it's simply more than we budgeted for. It is not, however, more than we need. ... You've got problems in this state that aren't going to be fixed by an extra $2 billion."
Harpootlian, who was elected to a partial term in 2018 after Sen. John Courson resigned, says he has been surprised by the lack of resources provided to legislators, and says he'd like to see each member have a researcher.
"I have no staff as a senator," Harpootlian said. "I have nobody to do research for me, to vet anything, to take a bill and analyze it for me. I hired, in my law practice, a full-time person who has a masters in public administration, who I pay a lot more than I get paid by the Senate. It has been invaluable to me.
"Not only do we need to increase the pay for legislators — and of course no one in the Legislature is going to vote for that this year because we are all up for re-election and don't want to be seen as feathering our own nest — but I don't understand why we can't each have a decent, qualified staff person that would do research for us."