Legislators urged to settle issue of governor’s future before next session starts

By Robert Behre

About 70 Lowcountry businessmen and women from Lowcountry industries, schools and other businesses gathered Tuesday to talk about their hopes and goals for next year’s legislative session in Columbia.

Gov. Mark Sanford spoke Friday to a Lions Club lunch at the Ryan’s Family Steakhouse in Conway.

But first, S.C. Chamber of Commerce President Otis Rawl cleared the air about an issue that could rob lawmakers of much of their time: the possible impeachment of Gov. Mark Sanford.

Sanford is subject to an ongoing State Ethics Commission probe into his travel as well as his use of campaign funds.

Rawl said the state House looks likely to move ahead with impeachment, and from the chamber’s standpoint, he had one request of lawmakers: Settle the issue this year.

“Let’s get it out, get it done before January,” he said. “We can’t afford to let impeachment proceedings hold up the entire legislative session again.”

Rawl called the Legislature’s 2009 session “probably the most nonproductive session we’ve seen in Columbia in a long time,” largely because the debate was dominated by the need to make $1.3 billion in cuts that included the General Assembly and shortened its session by several weeks.

The business leaders gathered Tuesday, the seventh of nine chamber meetings across the state, and offered dozens of specific changes they would like to see lawmakers consider in the areas of health care, economic development, education, energy, infrastructure, tourism and other issues.

The grass-roots meetings included members of the Charleston Metro, Berkeley County, Greater Summerville Dorchester County, Tri-County Regional, and Walterboro-Colleton chambers of commerce.

Those who spoke up said they wanted to see more film incentives, a good incentive package for a possible new Boeing assembly plant here, an emphasis on energy conservation and dozens of other ideas.

Rawl said the state chamber also is getting more involved on the federal level because pending legislation on health care reform, unionization rules and energy policy promises to have a far more significant impact on the bottom line of South Carolina businesses.

Still, the prospect of impeachment dragging on, hindering the state’s ability to recruit industry, provide unemployment benefits and retrain unemployed workers, also remains a concern.

And it’s not just a concern of business leaders. State lawmakers, including House Speaker Pro Tem Harry Cato, R-Travelers Rest, said recently that many people in the GOP caucus have gone to the governor and asked him to resign.

“It is really starting to hurt the state,” he said. “Too many of us who are involved with private conversations with CEOs hear that too often.”

State Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca and chairman of House’s Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, said Saturday the Sanford saga is having a dramatic impact on the state’s ability to recruit new jobs. “The governor is pulling us all down with him,” he said.

The impeachment issue is expected to wait on the State Ethics Commission’s findings, and Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said Saturday he would not speculate about the timetable for when impeachment might begin or how long it might take.

“From a business perspective, we just can’t stand another unproductive session, especially with our unemployment rate as high as it is,” Rawl said. “They just can’t get in there and take all session again to deal with impeachment proceedings.”