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Bill Would Add Forester to State Economic Development Board

The S.C. Forestry Commission is supporting a bill to put its director on an obscure state board with vast control over South Carolina’s economy.

The board is named the S.C. Coordinating Council for Economic Development.

Established through legislation in 1986, the Coordinating Council exists to centralize efforts by state agencies to recruit companies to the state and expand existing South Carolina businesses.

Among the tools at the council’s disposal: a bevy of taxpayer-funded discretionary incentives and a multimillion-dollar pot of state money known as the deal-closing fund.

The incentives range from credits for job creation to grants for infrastructure projects to reimbursements for worker retraining.

The deal-closing fund, which is provided to the Coordinating Council to help lure business prospects to the state, was appropriated $5 million this fiscal year.

That amount could increase more than five-fold under a budget the House has approved for the 2012-13 fiscal year that starts July 1.

The state Commerce Department staffs the Coordinating Council and the commerce secretary, who oversees the department, serves as chairman of the council.

Indeed, the Coordinating Council features most of the big players in the state economic development machine – a 10-member who’s who designated in the law by the positions they hold.

Four of the individuals are part of the governor’s cabinet, but as an entity unto itself the Coordinating Council operates largely off the public radar.

In addition to Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, the current council members include:

  • Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers;
  • S.C. Research Authority Chairman Marco Cavazzoni, who is one of Boeing South Carolina’s top executives;
  • State Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern; and
  • Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism director Duane Parrish.

The bill would add one more name to that list – the state forester, who serves as director of the Forestry Commission.

Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, introduced the bill, S. 579, in mid-February. It does not have any co-sponsors. But one week after Cromer submitted the bill, the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee advanced it to the full Senate. Republican Greg Ryberg of Aiken County chairs the LCI Committee.

The bill has moved no further since then, however.

Shortly after it got to the Senate, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the chamber’s powerful Finance Committee, put his name on the bill. A procedural move, that slows it down and makes it more difficult for the Senate to take up the measure.

Cromer, who serves on the Finance Committee, says he doesn’t know why Leatherman put the brakes on his bill. “But I’ve never questioned him on it,” Cromer says.

“Without saying anything I have not pressured him on it,” he adds.

But Cromer, chairman of the Senate Fish, Game and Forestry Committee, says he does know the genesis of his bill.

“The foresters thought it would be a good idea if they were on there (the Coordinating Council),” he says, “and so I told them I would help them out. And truthfully, when they came to me I thought it would be a good idea. I didn’t see how it could hurt anything.”

Cromer argues economics in making a case for his proposal to put the state forester on the Coordinating Council for Economic Development.

Forestry and timber constitute the largest component of the agriculture industry in South Carolina, and agriculture vies with tourism as the state’s No. 1 business sector, the senator says.

So if the forester were to serve on the Coordinating Council, it might be a way to better promote the state’s forestry products, Cromer says.

He says foresters want a presence on the council. But Cromer says he cannot recall if representatives of both the Forestry Commission, a state agency, and the South Carolina Forestry Association, a private nonprofit group, asked him to introduce his bill.

Gene Kodama is the state forester.

“Of course the Forestry Commission would be in support of that,” Kodama says of the proposal. “But it did not originate within the commission as best I know.”

Efforts to obtain comment from the Forestry Association on Monday were unsuccessful. Frances Taylor, the group’s communications director, referred questions to association President and CEO Cam Crawford, who was unavailable.

Kodama says he isn’t really familiar with the Coordinating Council. “I would have to study that a little bit myself as far as the function (of the council),” he says.

But Kodama says major state industries such as tourism and agriculture are represented on the council while forestry is not. “And it needs to be,” he says.

Asked whether the agriculture commissioner’s presence on the council adequately represents forestry, Kodama says, “Absolutely not. It’s two totally different sciences that depend on the land.”

Asked about Leatherman’s issue with the bill, Kodama says it relates to the statutory titles of Coordinating Council members. “That’s what his concern was and he wanted to work his way through that.”

The other five members of the council currently are:

  • Department of Employment and Workforce director Abe Turner;
  • State Technical College System Chairman Montez Martin;
  • Santee Cooper Chairman O.L. Thompson;
  • S.C. Jobs Economic Development Authority (JEDA) Chairman Peter Brown; and
  • Department of Revenue director James Etter.

The Commerce Department also lists the Department of Transportation director as a Coordinating Council member.

The council features some crossover in Commerce Secretary Hitt, who also serves on the Tech System, Ports Authority and JEDA boards.

The bill to add the Forestry Commission director to the council represents another way the agency is looking to ramp up its economic development efforts.

In its budget request for next fiscal year, the commission asked for an additional $5 million over five years to put toward growing the economic impact of the state’s forest products industry, a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

The House, which begins the legislative budget process, allocated some $23.1 million to the commission, about $2 million less than this year in total funding. But the chamber increased the agency’s state dollars by $2 million.

The House also proposed pumping up the deal-closing fund for next year on a steroidal level – $10 million through normal budget channels – that alone doubling it – plus a proviso directing most of the state’s share of a national mortgage fraud settlement to the fund.

The settlement amount that could go into the deal-closing fund, instead of helping South Carolinians victimized by abusive mortgage-lending practices, is expected to be $23.9 million, according to Mark Plowden, communications director for the state Attorney General’s Office.

That’s $33.9 million total for the deal-closing fund in 2012-13 under the House budget, more than five times the fund amount this year.

Gov. Nikki Haley also proposed doubling the fund’s base appropriation next year to $10 million.

It’s a great day to be involved in state economic development efforts in South Carolina.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

Economic Development General Assembly Incentives Legislation State Agencies

Gene Kodama S.C. Department of Commerce Sen. Greg Ryberg S.C. Forestry Commission Sen. Ronnie Cromer S.C. Coordinating Council for Economic Develpoment