- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:


Dec. 23

The Post and Courier of Charleston on the state’s pension system:

A hard look at the S.C. pension fund reveals a picture that isn’t pretty. It is underfunded and getting more so. And while the national trend of pension funds is downward, South Carolina is below the national median.

According to the Legislative Audit Council, which on Monday released an assessment of the state’s public pensions, the pension portfolio has not met its target (7.5 percent rate of return) over the past decade, and is not expected to meet it over the next 30 years, resulting in a shortfall in the two largest pension funds of as much as $11 billion.

Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, is right to make pension reform a primary focus of the upcoming legislative session. It’s hard to see how the leadership could do otherwise, given the findings of the audit.

As Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom said, “It is heartening that the audit does what has needed to be done for years.” He said projections need to be reasonable and arrived at by using more accurate information, which the audit calls for.

As it stands now, the LAC predicts either state and local taxes will have to increase to address the problems, or public services will have to be cut. Or both.

Or, Mr. Eckstrom said, employee contributions to the pension funds can be increased.

One problem the LAC described is the rate of return on investments that South Carolina has received. It is consistently below the national average and, for example, below North Carolina almost every year for the past decade.

The Retirement System Investment Commission (RSIC) has been given legal authority to make riskier investments, under the premise that the returns can be greater. However, the returns have been smaller and the fees paid by the state larger.

For example, in 2012, RSIC’s returns were an abysmal 0.4 percent as compared to the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund of 5.77 percent.

Certainly, one issue the General Assembly should take up is whether to limit how much the RSIC can spend on riskier investments. And certainly legislators need to make sure that information reported by RSIC and PEBA (Public Employee Benefits Authority, which administers benefits) should be “in a format that can be understood by an interested reader without expertise in finance or pensions,” as the audit notes.

As in almost every audit, the agencies being scrutinized don’t agree with every one of the LAC’s findings and recommendations.

For example, the LAC recommended that RSIC commissioners not be allowed to recommend investments - only staff - to avoid possible conflicts of interest. RSIC disagrees, saying that commissioners have insights that might be helpful, and that they are required to disclose any financial benefits they might enjoy from such an investment.

One option cited by the LAC that is sure to draw controversy would transition from a pension-based system to a defined contribution system in which each employee manages his own retirement account.

Rep. Lucas is wise to be talking about comprehensive pension reform. Tweaks made in past years have obviously not fixed the system’s problems. Something different must be done.

That’s long been the view of Treasurer Curtis Loftis, a persistent critic of the state’s pension system.

Now is a good time to do it - before the liability grows another $1 billion.




Dec. 21

The Sun News of Myrtle Beach on the expansion of Coastal Carolina University’s football stadium:

Coastal Carolina University’s board of trustees has approved plans to greatly expand Brooks Stadium after an executive session - behind closed doors, public and press not allowed - to discuss a contractual matter related to the stadium. The administration has the go-ahead to move forward, with a stipulation that the cost not exceed $38 million.

Following the Dec. 11 board of trustees meeting, the university released architect renderings showing added upper deck seating on the S.C. 544 side of the stadium. The expansion will more than double the seating capacity to 20,000-plus. The renderings released were in the public domain prior to the Dec. 11 trustees meeting, university counsel Tim Meacham says.

Meacham said the board’s decision to discuss the matter in secret complies with S.C. law which allows executive sessions for contractual matters, which must be specifically identified. But since no contract agreement was discussed in the open session, it is still unclear how the secret action complies with the law.

The Brooks Stadium expansion (current seating totals 9,214) follows CCU moving up to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level and becoming a member of the Sun Belt Conference. FBS football teams must maintain an average attendance of 15,000. Coastal football will play another season in the second-tiered Football Championship Subdivision, although the team will not be eligible for the FCS playoffs. In 2017, the Chanticleers will play their first Sun Belt schedule, but will not be eligible for a bowl game following that season.

The FBS average attendance requirement begs the questions of where are those thousands of additional football watchers and how is CCU going to attract them to Brooks Stadium six or seven weeks during future football seasons. CCU does not have a “Field of Dreams” situation, the idea that if a ballpark is built, the fans will come. It seems obvious that Coastal football will need greatly increased public support to approximately double the number of people in the seats.

CCU President David DeCenzo, other administrators and the trustees undoubtedly understand the need for greater public support. When agreements were announced with Stubbs Muldrow Herin Architects of Mount Pleasant, in partnership with Heery International, DeCenzo said the cost would not be known until a proposed design is completed. At this point the $38 million figure perhaps is a maximum allowable cost for the expansion.

As DeCenzo has explained, the planning, design and contracting process is somewhat complicated, and requires state approval at more than one phase. The cost won’t be known until a contractor says the firm can do the expansion for so-many millions. Whatever design is selected, and whatever it costs, DeCenzo and the trustees need to ensure public understanding of the details of the expansion.

For public understanding, the more that is discussed in open meetings, the better. More than doubling the size of Brooks Stadium is a major project for not only the university but also the larger community. And full support of the community, particularly thousands of football fans, is vital for the future of CCU football.

While the state law on public meetings grants exemptions for specific contractual matters, the law does not require private executive sessions. DeCenzo and the trustees will be in a better position to woo football fans if they do all Brooks Stadium expansion business in open session.




Dec. 18

The Greeneville News on welcoming Syrian refugees:

Word this week a group of Syrian refugees has been resettled in South Carolina and another is on its way makes it clear the federal government is ignoring pleas not to resettle the refugees here.

Two Syrians were settled in the Midlands through Lutheran Services of the Carolinas, according to a report by Greenville News reporter Tim Smith. Another family has been approved to come here, as well.

This is not alarming news.

Boisterous opposition to refugee resettlement here and in at least 30 other states is hollow rhetoric that ignores the reality of the situation and the immigrant history of our country.

The United States is behind the curve on the Syrian crisis. We have welcomed just 2,290 Syrian refugees since 2011. Others, such as Germany, have welcomed tens of thousands in 2015 alone. Conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in part because of the example she has set for the rest of the world by welcoming these refugees.

A case can be made that this is not primarily an American responsibility. Which is why the United States has committed to bringing in just 10,000 of the millions of people fleeing the Syrian war.

That argument also ignores the fact that the United States did not become a beacon of freedom because we close our borders and refuse to let in people seeking refuge from the harsher outposts of humanity. Nearly every American family has a story of an ancestor who fled oppression, persecution or war and found refuge here.

We should reject the seeds of fear being sown by some, both internally and externally, over these refugees. We should reject the dangerous notion that we need to separate from people of a certain ethnic or religious background. The times when the United States overreacted to threats abroad and sequestered - or worse - those who looked like our enemy have been judged harshly. We need to learn from past mistakes.

Yes, some fear terrorists could be hiding among the Syrian refugees. That risk needs to be, and is being, considered. The federal government and other agencies vet refugees to the best of their abilities in a process that can take up to two years and weeds out about half of potential refugees, according to a recent Time Magazine report.

Only the most vulnerable refugees are resettled overseas, in places such as the United States. They include survivors of torture, victims of sexual violence, targets of political persecution, the medically needy, and families with multiple children and a female head of household, Time reports.

Simply put, these are not threatening people.

It is worth noting the most recent terrorist attack in the United States was committed by a man born in Illinois and raised in California, and a woman who came to the United States legally as his fiancée.

Rather than continuing to fight this program, South Carolina and the other states that have opposed this effort should welcome these immigrants and help them adjust to American life even as they work with the federal government to ensure the resettlement program is as safe as it can be.

Social media reaction to Smith’s story has ranged from fear to outrage to charity. We urge the latter, especially at a time of year when our hearts should be focused on compassion for the suffering.

The Islamic State scores a victory when Americans are scared. The group’s threat - whether real or not - to sneak terrorists in among the Syrian refugees certainly could accomplish that.

But Americans know better. A more appropriate response from all of us would be to welcome these Syrians, and for America to be the refuge they are seeking. We should thumb our collective nose at ISIS and its ideology that is based on fear and separatism.

Do we put ourselves at risk? Perhaps, slightly. But not accepting and aiding these refugees risks our very way of life.



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