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South Carolina Port Mismanagement Prompts Filibuster, Deal For Jasper

“A well-run agency with a guaranteed monopoly ought not to have to come to Columbia to pay its bills.”

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South Carolina state senator Tom Davis knows how to stage a filibuster. For two years, he single-handedly blocked a gasoline tax increase which – as our founding editor Will Folks predicted it would at the time – has failed to live up to its promises.

Unfortunately, Davis’ gas tax filibuster was cut short in year three (2017) by his fellow “Republicans.”

They should have listened to him then … but they appear to be listening to him now.

Davis is filibustering again this year … blocking a proposed $550 million borrowing bill that sources tell us is unprecedented in state history.

Actually, the total cost of the borrowing (including interest) comes to $645 million over the coming decade-and-a-half.

This massive expansion of red ink is intended to help finance rail enhancements as well as the S.C. Ports Authority (SCPA)’s Hugh K. Leatherman terminal, which just so happens to be named after the politician who wields more influence over state finances than any other lawmaker.

Naturally, Leatherman wants the bond expenditure approved … while Davis is seeking concessions to ensure than an oft-delayed port site in Jasper county is developed with private sector support.

The problem with the massive borrowing bill? Well, there are several problems …

First, in addition to ongoing labor issues at the new terminal we are told there may be structural issues plaguing the “Leatherman wharf.” According to our sources on the waterfront, concerns have been raised regarding the wharf’s structural integrity – which is in the process of being load-tested following the arrival of new ship-to-shore cranes earlier this month.

In the meantime, lawmakers are sounding alarm bells regarding the finances of the SCPA – which has been getting absolutely crushed over the last decade by its regional rivals. Many lawmakers want to know why this government agency – run by political appointees – has exhausted all of its bonding capacity and now needs to rely on the state to come to its rescue financially.

“A well-run agency with a guaranteed monopoly ought not to have to come to Columbia to pay its bills,” Davis said earlier this week from the well of the S.C. Senate.

Indeed …

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With a capable assist from former governor Nikki Haley, the current leadership at SCPA has run the port of Charleston into the ground – while also failing to develop the east coast’s last remaining deepwater port location in Jasper county.

No wonder it is in such dire financial straits …

“I have been saying the port can’t fund or finance (the Leatherman terminal) on their own and their ‘enterprise agency’ status is in jeopardy if they go to the state to bond their projects,” one waterfront insider told us. “We are now here.”

South Carolina is in a port expansion race with Georgia, which has supplanted the Palmetto State as home to the premier port in the southeast – by a sizable margin in the aftermath of Haley’s betrayal. A dozen years ago, Charleston was the fourth-busiest port in America. Today, it is not even in the top ten.

What happened?


First, the state failed to develop a “global gateway” on Daniel Island two decades ago that would have offered on-dock rail access. Since then, it has failed to expand and upgrade Interstate 526 – which has become a definitional chokepoint.

“Absolute incompetence and lack of leadership got us here, but here we are,” our waterfront source said.

Despite this demonstrated incompetence, Davis has signaled he will support the bond bill – but not before the SCPA conveys its interest in the Jasper port to local government officials and agrees to stop blocking the development of the project.

In arguing his point, Davis noted that the SCPA had pledged the “full faith and credit of the state” toward developing the Jasper port more than a decade-and-a-half ago – but has thus far failed to live up to its word.

“I can’t think of another state agency – well, maybe Santee Cooper – that in the face of an expressed legislative charge essentially said, ‘we don’t care,’” Davis said.

RELATED | SOUTH CAROLINA PORTS: COVERING UP POLLUTION?

“There’s a remedy we spell out – convey the interest to Jasper county,” Davis added.

Because there are not enough votes in the S.C. Senate to “sit Davis down” (i.e. to end his filibuster), it seems the bond bill is not going anywhere until the Jasper port agreement is signed.

As our founding editor has written on numerous prior occasions, he supports developing the Jasper port (if for no other reason because there is simply no room in Charleston harbor for any additional capacity). More fundamentally, allowing private sector firms to manage our state’s port assets would free up potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for needed infrastructure enhancements (including the Leatherman terminal and the proposed Jasper port).

Unfortunately, South Carolina leaders continue to believe that running a port (and running a power company) are core functions of government. And so they continue to perform these functions … poorly.

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Banner: Columbia SC Photographers Travis Bell

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