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Sheheen: SC needs a COVID-19 task force to help chart next steps

Sheheen-Vincent (copy) (copy)

Sen Vincent Sheheen

We are more than a month into the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Carolina. My hometown, Camden, was initially the hardest hit community in our state. We learned valuable lessons early of what to do, what not to do and building community support. Most importantly, we learned that short-term and long-term planning matters.

Our state has now seen the virus affect every aspect of its government, private sector and nonprofits. We weathered the initial storm with tactical, ad hoc decision-making, much of this by the governor’s office.

Now the time has come to chart out our next steps so we can develop a comprehensive, strategic approach to the long-term presence of the virus, and ensure that our government services continue to function. Too often we are reactive in South Carolina. It’s time to be proactive.

This crisis is nothing like a natural disaster nor are its effects typical of an economic crisis. Like the virus, our current experience is novel. Therefore, our normal crisis responses are inadequate. We need new tactics, and quickly.

There are many unprecedented circumstances facing our state as we navigate this situation. For example, since the Great Recession, South Carolina has dramatically reduced funding for our colleges — making their operating budgets almost exclusively reliant on tuition, fees and other revenues. When students aren’t on campus, these funds disappear. This loss will exceed $100 million through the end of May alone. Some of our colleges could collapse financially if we don’t take action.

Our hospitals are working overtime and expending vast sums to fight the coronavirus. While doing this, they are not performing the elective procedures that generate most of their revenue. Our state has already seen mass layoffs in health care. We must develop long-term plans to maintain the financial viability of our hospitals.

So many questions arise: How would we handle a coronavirus outbreak in our prisons? How will our state parks be maintained without revenue? What steps will we take to ensure that students can return safely to school in the fall? Are we ensuring that day cares, many of which are still open, are keeping children and staff safe? Will South Carolina need a jobs or public-works program to assist unemployed workers when we are able to reopen? How will we reboot our tourism and nonprofits?

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The Legislature took good first steps meeting this month, agreeing to disburse funding and ease regulations to assist colleges, hospitals, schools and counties while also allowing the governor to receive and spend federal funds. This legislation must be finalized, but it is important to note that we do not have detailed plans on how these funds will be managed or expended.

Our state has not created mid- or long-term plans on managing this crisis in its government or private sector. South Carolina needs executive and legislative leadership that is aggressive, flexible and quick to address our next steps to weather this crisis.

Our governor clearly loves this state and has worked to manage the immediate medical crisis. However, South Carolina has not yet recovered from the Haley and Sanford years of treating government as the enemy, gutting state agencies, high leadership turnover and inexperienced appointees. As a result, our agencies have not performed as well as we deserve.

Too many people have been unable to access unemployment benefits through the Department of Employment and Workforce. Our health department was quickly overwhelmed because of inadequate staffing, and many other agencies have no real contingency plans. Unfortunately, in South Carolina we don’t seem to want professional and competent government until we need it — and often that’s too late. It’s time to catch up.

Immediately, we need our governor and legislative leaders to appoint a coronavirus task force with strong, knowledgeable leaders. These leaders should demonstrate a deep understanding of our state operations, health care system, economics, education system and nonprofit sector. This task force should be led by someone willing to commit full time with the proven ability to get things done. This task force should be fully staffed, and must quickly assemble a plan for our governor and state leaders to execute.

We need this designated group to design how to fund needed areas, change laws and regulations to assist our government and private sector, and plan the management of the crisis during the coming months and beyond. We must act now. We have no time to waste.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, represents District 27, which includes Kershaw, Lancaster and Chester counties.

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