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Living on Purpose: God is more than enough

Dr. William Holland

By Dr. William Holland

We’ve all heard the song, “He’s got the whole world in His hands” but did you know this is actually from scripture? We read in Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 12, “Who has calculated the waters in the hollow of His hand, and who has measured the heavens and determined the dust of the earth, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?” Today, if you feel that your crisis is too much for God to take care of, if you believe your problem is too big for God to handle, and if you are convinced your enemy is just too powerful, God wants you to know that you are not seeing life in a correct perspective. God is for you and this means that nothing or no one is greater than His power. You and God are a majority no matter how bleak your situation. He is saying to stop confessing how huge your problems are and start declaring how awesome your God is! Doubt see’s God through the eyes of our emotions but faith see’s our circumstances through the eyes of God. Pray and believe that He is in total control and that He always wants the best for your life. Just for a moment, let’s stop and consider how powerful God is and how we can know that nothing is too difficult for Him.  Read the rest of this entry »

Bitcoin owners: Get ready to pay taxes this April


By Bill Rizzo
Carolina News and Reporter

Bitcoin owners will no longer be able to avoid paying capital gains tax on cryptocurrency gains for their 2017 tax returns due to the new rules in the 2018 tax law. The new tax code closed a loophole that allowed tax write offs by exchanging bitcoin for another cryptocurrency.

Prior to the latest tax bill, that process called like-kind exchanges allowed bitcoin owners to avoid paying a capital gains tax. Under the new tax code, like-kind exchanges only apply to real estate.

What is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a digital currency with a limited supply, similar to gold – where the market sets the value. It started as an idea by someone using the name Shatoshi Nakamoto, who’s true identity is unknown. Nakamoto wrote a paper about Bitcoin and sent it out to cryptographers in 2008. This was during the housing crisis when more people began to distrust the U.S. dollar’s value and the Federal Reserve’s banking policies – which allow the Federal Reserve to reduce the value of the dollar by printing money. Bitcoin was first coined in January 2009.

“I think when people got more skeptical about government and financial institutions, they get worried about inflation and the government being basically in charge of the money,” said Colin Jones, a USC finance professor who has been researching cryptocurrencies for over 5 years.

Before 2017, the price of bitcoin had risen at a slow and steady rate. On Jan.  1, 2017, one bitcoin was valued at $983.61. By December 2017, it reached $19,165.42 and took the world by storm.

“I think it was originally popular because it has a very interesting value proposition as a stateless currency that is incredibly liquid and transferable,” said Jones. “Then once the price went up, people started paying more attention.”

He says the steep rise in price caught the eye of investors. “Buying a little bit of bitcoin has a place in a lot of people’s long-term portfolios because it’s uncorrelated to the stock market,” said Jones. He called it an alternative to gold.

The blockchain

This idea of Bitcoin at its root was a distributed ledger called a blockchain where all users record every transaction publicly. The blockchain creates security for the investor because the government and others cannot modify the blockchain.  The only way the blockchain can be updated is through the process of data mining.

There are hundreds of thousands of mining computers all over the world owned by companies and individuals. The breadth of these mining networks makes it virtually impossible to hack, since you need 51 percent of the network to gain control.

Andrew Wright, a USC student who has attended blockchain conferences and works with the technology daily, says the blockchains are the most secure form of transactional record keeping and data exchange, which is the reason they have become so sought after.

“Blockchain is the pinnacle of military grade encryption software that is being used in a commercialized market,” said Wright.

Andrew Wright, a USC student majoring in advertising, works with blockchain technology daily. The image on the computer screen is his self-created visual representation of blockchain.

There will never be more than 21 million bitcoin in circulation. Each year half of the remaining bitcoin will be released from new blocks to prevent all of the supply being used up. The algorithm will not allow more than the year’s supply to be released. At the end of 2017 there were 16.78 million bitcoin in circulation. The total will not reach 21 million in over 100 years.

“At its root, cryptocurrencies are a hedge against fiat currencies,” said Wright.

2018 decline in price

Following the 2017 surge, a big crash scared a lot of investors. By Feb. 2, 2018, the price of bitcoin dropped to $7016.39. Jones says this drop is due to government regulation.

Jones says South Korea and China have banned cryptocurrencies, causing drops in prices. Both countries are major players in the market.

Now, America has even threatened regulations on bitcoin.

“America was kind of waffling on it,” said Jones. “Although recently the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) has softened on it saying there might be a little bit of regulation, but they are not going to stop it,” said Jones. He points to regulation as the main cause of the price drop.

With the like-kind exchange tax loophole closing, the crytptocurrency market might be even less attractive to American investors, who until now have been able to get around paying taxes on their gains.

Cryptocurrencies and taxes

Before 2014, the IRS did not specifically require cryptocurrency owners to declare their gains and pay taxes. Then, as the market became more popular, the IRS decided it was time to clarify the issue. In 2014, the IRS asked Coinbase – the most popular website to store, buy or sell digital currencies – for all of its users’ records.

“I don’t think anything changed, but I think bitcoin just got on the radar,” said Donna Schmitt, a USC accounting professor.

This new policy treated cryptocurrencies as a property, similar to stocks or gold. This meant owners would be required to declare their gains and pay a capital gains tax on their digital currency.

Schmitt says the U.S. dollar is the only currency that does not require a capital gains tax. “Any other currency is property that can change in value and you can have a gain or loss in selling it, which means you have to pay a capital gains tax,” she said. “Capital gains tax rate is dependent on your income.”

But this new 2014 rule set by the IRS did not stop cryptocurrency owners from finding loopholes. Due to the like-kind exchanges rule, bitcoin and other owners of digital currencies were able to get tax write offs by exchanging one digital currency for another.

To declare digital currency gains or losses, owners will now have to report them on a Schedule D form. This is where taxpayers report all of their capital transactions.

Colin Jones is a professor in the finance department at the University of South Carolina. He first learned about bitcoin from his students and continued to research and study blockchain technology.

Donna Schmitt is an accounting professor at the University of South Carolina and a certified public accountant in Florida.

“What does Trump stand for” by Stuart Neiman

“What does Trump stand for” by Stuart Neiman

“Two Faces” from The Times and Democrat

“Two Faces” from The Times and Democrat

“Blame Game” from The Times and Democrat

“Blame Game” from The Times and Democrat

“Big Cavity” from The Times and Democrat

“Big Cavity” from The Times and Democrat

My Mother’s Lonely Peach Tree

Tom Poland

By Tom Poland

The old folks planted fruit trees. Pear, apple, cherry, wild plum, and peach trees. Pecan trees too. Vineyards of wild grapes … scuppernongs and muscadines. Folks in general don’t do that anymore. Why should they? Just go to the store and buy fruit that’s waxed and arranged in pretty rows. Nary a tree in sight. Dependent on strangers we are.

Well, it wasn’t always that way. From my deep well of memories rise a small fig tree and one lonely peach tree. I see it now. Lean, green, with tiny peaches. With my back to Mom’s hummingbird feeder looking “11 o’clock way” near the wood’s edge, I still see where it grew. Try as I might, though, I cannot see it in bloom but I remember peaches. Not much bigger than their pits they were; I picked them too early.

Somewhere down the line that tree died. Died of loneliness I suspect. Bereft of an orchard to comfort it. To show hot it looked. It’s no more, but memories of it live on and that tree was on my mind when I trekked into Edgefield County a chilly March 1. I got up at 5:15, threw on the coffee, made ready to leave, and arrived in Peach Country just after sunrise. A heavenly sight waited: peach trees in bloom by the scores. Clouds of pink, pale red, coral, a blushing performance of delicate blooms that mesmerize. Case in point. As I was packing up camera gear just off Highway 19, three women pulled in. They rushed over to a tree, posed, and began snapping photos of themselves.

“The trees are beautiful,” I said.  Read the rest of this entry »

Kevin Harvick Dominates In Las Vegas To Capture 100th NASCAR National Series Win

By: Camille Jones/TheFourthTurn.com

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Kevin Harvick sailed off to his second victory of the season in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick led 214 of 267 laps on his way to his 100th win in NASCAR’s top-three series.

Harvick in the Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford has seen two dominant performances in three races this season. Harvick’s victory on Sunday comes just one week after his win at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“We have definitely had three good race cars with the Xfinity car and the Cup car and we had a good race car at Daytona as well and got caught up in a wreck,” Harvick said following his win. “As you look at the last two weeks and our 1.5-mile program in general it has been really good since I started here at SHR. They put a lot of effort into everything we do from every standpoint to get these cars going like they are. I have to thank everyone from Stewart-Haas Racing, Gene and Tony, it is fun to have them here when we win. Everybody who helps put this thing on the race track, we couldn’t do it without them. And the fans for coming out to the racetrack today. We really appreciate you all coming out. It is always fun for me to win on the west coast and I didn’t have a lot of luck here until I came to SHR. It is great to win on the west coast for me.”

On Sunday, 42-year-old Harvick added his 39th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win to his 47 wins in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and 14 wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Harvick becomes only the fourth driver in history to capture 100 wins across the NASCAR national series. He joins Richard Petty (200 wins), Kyle Busch (184 wins) and David Pearson (106 wins).  Read the rest of this entry »

Living on Purpose: Fear not, for God is with you

Dr. William Holland

By Dr. William Holland

God has promised in His Word that we will never be alone and I consider this blessed assurance as a foundational pillar that supports our faith in Him. I trust Him completely and shudder to imagine drifting like a ship on the open Sea without a sail, a compass, or an anchor. May we be reminded that God is always with us, He knows our situation and always wants the best for us.

When we think about why we are here on this planet and what God’s plan is for us, we realize it would be wise to study His holy instruction manual. We observe Jesus in Matthew chapter 28 and verse 10 having a private conversation with His disciples. While trying to encourage and give them final instructions He said, “Teach these new followers to obey all the commands I have given to you and be sure of this: I am always with you, even to the end of the world.” This was not just a passing gesture like, “take care and I hope we meet again” this was a literal promise confirming that He was sent to dwell within those who give their life to Him now and forever. Many other passages declare that we are never alone once we invite Jesus to be our Lord such as Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  Read the rest of this entry »

“Stop the insanity” by Stuart Neiman

“Stop the insanity” by Stuart Neiman

Kevin Harvick Wins First Cup Series Race At Atlanta Motor Speedway Since 2001

By: Camille Jones/TheFourthTurn.com

HAMPTON, Ga. – Kevin Harvick cruised to victory in Sunday’s rain-delayed Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, 17 years after claiming his first win at the track after taking over the ride of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Harvick paid tribute to Earnhardt by raising three fingers out of his window as he drove around the track celebrating his win in his No. 4 Jimmy Johns Ford. Although Harvick has led 1,152 laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Sunday’s win was his first at the track since his debut start in 2001. Harvick also won the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at the track on Saturday afternoon.

“I’m just so proud of everybody on our team,” Harvick said as he reflected on his victory celebration. “That was the first win in my career and to be able to do that and pay tribute to Dale was pretty cool. I’ve been waiting a long time to do that. We’ve had so many days where we could do that here, but I just want to thank everybody from Stewart-Haas Racing, Jimmy John’s, Busch, Ford, Mobil 1, Outback, Hunt Brothers, Morton Buildings, Textron Off Road, Liftmaster, everybody who puts this car on the race track and for five years it’s been so fast at this particular race track and a lot of other ones. I love racing here and it’s good to be back in Victory Lane finally. It took a while.”

With the threat of rain in the area lingering throughout the entire race, several different strategies unfolded over the course of 325 laps. Harvick stuck to the plan and out-raced the strategy with pure speed and a late caution that reset the field.  Read the rest of this entry »

“CNN Egg” from The Times and Democrat

“CNN Egg” from The Times and Democrat

“Fox Lean” from The Times and Democrat

“Fox Lean” from The Times and Democrat

“MSNBC Doll” from The Times and Democrat

“MSNBC Doll” from The Times and Democrat

Living on Purpose: An ordinary man with an extraordinary mission

Dr. William Holland

By Dr. William Holland

Like many of you, I’m very sad about Billy Graham passing away. Those who are younger will probably not have the familiar connection with him like some of us older folks, but nonetheless, I’m sure his books and recordings will continue having a beneficial impact on future generations. Throughout my childhood, I remember my parents always dialed in our old television set to watch Billy Graham evangelistic crusades and even though as a typical child I thought church services were somewhat boring, I would still sit and listen. In fact, I may not have realized it at the time, but I’m convinced his messages had a positive effect on my spiritual calling and helped influence me into a life of ministry. Here is one of his more popular statements, “Being a Christian is more than just an instant conversion, it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Jesus.”

He had such a mesmerizing voice and would speak with such passion that you could not help but feel this was a truth that was being relayed from heaven. I believe his sense of urgency along with expounding the ever-important subject about Jesus being crucified and where we are going to spend eternity caused his audience to be riveted to their seats. I recall when my grandparents would come to visit and if Billy Graham was on, my dad would tune in as his parents also appreciated Mr. Graham’s ministry. My grandmother would pull out her handkerchief and every now and then she would wipe a tear from her eye. I did not understand what was going on at the time but after I grew up I realized she was being blessed and moved deep within her soul.  Read the rest of this entry »

Granddad’s Cow-Charming ’65 Chevy

Tom Poland

By Tom Poland

Granddad Poland farmed but never drove a pickup, not that I recall. In a battered old car, he’d bump through pastures festooned with yellow bitter weeds, clunk past a lonely persimmon tree and ranks of white-faced cattle. Herefords, they were. From afar, those cows would amble Granddad’s way and when his jalopy closed in they would break into a stiff-kneed trot. To see the old man’s car was to see feed and hay.

My best friends, the children of field hands, and I sat in the back of Mr. Johnny’s cars. Sometimes we rode on the trunk, sometimes on the fenders. We were invincible and we were oblivious. The era of Jim Crow was upon us but Joe Boy, Sweetie, Jabe, and I knew nothing about all that. We were comrades in arms united in our quests to knock down red wasp nests, catch bluegills, dine on tomato-red persimmons, and swim in ponds sometimes blue, sometimes muddy. We lived like kings.

Granddad wore a felt hat and overalls and could cuss the horns off a billy goat. Whenever I was in his presence, I felt the need to hush up. Outside of cussing, Mr. Johnny didn’t talk much, so neither did I. And maybe that was good. For what I remember from our drives through pastures about lightning bug time pleases me still. The grassy hillsides … the fertile fragrance of pastures … the lowing of cattle … the distant line of dark trees it seemed an artist had sketched and fishponds smooth as glass where bullfrogs commenced to sing and fireflies lit up clumps of grass.

When the car shut down with a shudder and we sat still as stones, country sounds embraced us. Wind, lowing cattle, the distant hoot of a barred owl. Nary an ambulance, fire truck, or police siren. “Sigh-reen” as the country folk are wont to say. “Did y’all hear that sigh-reen last night?”  Read the rest of this entry »

A “spiritual awakening” on climate change

By Mike Woodel
Carolina News and Reporter

Former Republican congressman Bob Inglis (at right) now works to convince the GOP of climate change and free-enterprise solutions to address the problems. Photo courtesy of Price Atkinson and Northwestern University

Bob Inglis had an excellent reason for not buying climate change – Al Gore was selling it.

Now as he leads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, a conservative group he founded promoting free-enterprise answers to climate change, Inglis finds the environmental views he held as a congressman in the 1990s “rather ignorant.”

“It was the end of the inquiry; Al Gore was for it, so I was against it,” Inglis said.

Inglis was elected in 1992 to represent South Carolina’s District 4, covering Greenville-Spartanburg, “the reddest district in the reddest state in the nation,” he said. From then until 1998, his environmental views were shaped in direct opposition to the Democratic vice president, whose “An Inconvenient Truth” book and film changed the way the world viewed global warming.

Inglis was re-elected to Congress in 2005. Not long after, Inglis’ son told his father to re-think his views on the environment, or else he might not get his vote.

That millennial admonition was the first step in the re-education of Bob Inglis. His second was a trip to Antarctica with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; the third was another committee journey snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

There, Inglis made a connection with an Australian climate scientist which he deemed a “spiritual awakening.”

“I could tell that he and I shared a world view even though no words had been spoken,” Inglis said. “I could see that he was worshipping God in what he was showing me.”

On returning home, Inglis introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009 to the House. The bill sought lower Social Security taxes to be offset by greater taxes on fossil fuels. It did not sit well with a Republican Party in the midst of the Tea Party wave of 2010.

“Note to self: Do not introduce carbon tax in midst of Great Recession in reddest district in reddest state in nation,” Inglis said with a laugh.

Inglis lost the District 4 primary in a landslide to Trey Gowdy, who suggested he and a majority of the 4th district constituents did not believe in climate change. (Gowdy recently announced his retirement from the House.)

As far back as 1998, the EPA found that sea level near Charleston was rising at a rate of 9 inches per 100 years, and predicted that the cost of sand replacement to protect the S.C. coastline from a 20-inch rise could reach nearly $10 billion. And given the impacts felt around the state by Hurricanes Joaquin, Matthew and Irma in consecutive years, those costs are only headed upwards.

Rouzy Vafaie, second vice chair of the Charleston County Republican Party, once discounted global warming. But after becoming friends with Inglis and listening to his initiatives, he came to accept both the scientific evidence and the Energy and Enterprise Initiative’s solutions.

“One argument I bring up with my climate change-denying friends is ‘Well, you know, if you guys are right and nothing changes, well, then great,’” Vafaie said. “‘We’re in perfect shape. But if you guys are wrong, by the time we can actually do anything about it, game’s over.’”

One of the main pillars of Inglis’ initiative is a carbon tax similar to the one he proposed in the 1990s, which he believes could sell well with conservatives if it lowers the necessity of some environmental regulations.

“Slightly smaller government means that once you put the carbon tax on, you can eliminate some Clean Air Act regulations,” Inglis said. “Not the entirety of the Clean Air Act, obviously, but some parts of Clean Air Act regulations can go away because by the pricing of carbon dioxide, it’s a proxy for those regulations.”

Inglis also supports a border adjustment tax, which he believes is necessary to keep trade competitive while still charging for carbon emissions.

“If we price carbon dioxide by ourselves and it didn’t have that border adjustment, then manufacturers would pick up and move from the United States to China,” Inglis said. “Once they got there, they’d emit more CO2 than they’re emitting here because China is less energy efficient than we are…if you can’t make this worldwide, it’s really fruitless to attempt it.”

Of course, to get such policies in place, Inglis still needs a larger party-wide acceptance of climate change. Both he and Vafaie said there is growing agreement among Republicans of the human impact on the climate. But both also agree that some sectors of the party are harder to sway than others.

“When I speak in the Young Republican circles, I think it’s unanimously believed that there is [a human] impact,” Vafaie said. “As the age groups go up, I find it extremely difficult to convince people.”

Inglis said he believes conservatives are responsive to his solutions but that “populist nationalist” voters, especially those believing the narrative of a “war on coal,” are a different story.

“I think we got a good shot with conservatives,” Inglis said. “We got a hard, hard road to hoe with populist nationalists.”

Matt Moore chaired the South Carolina Republican Party from 2013 to last May. Now the chairman of the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition, Moore works to make it easier to establish a free market for solar energy in South Carolina. Like Vafaie, he sees growing acceptance of climate science within his party’s young people.

Before taking the chairmanship of the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition, Matt Moore served as chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party from 2013 to 2017.

“For millennials, anyone with a brain can see that humans contribute to environmental emissions,” Moore, a graduate of Georgia Tech’s industrial engineering program, said.

Moore said solar energy is very much on the rise in South Carolina since the state adopted net energy metering in 2014. Under net metering, residents owning solar panels receive reimbursements on their electric bills for the energy their panels return to the grid. The deal also allows producers to avoid fees from state utility companies through the end of 2020.

“Conservation is conservative,” Moore said. “My job as chairman of the PCSC is to go out there and tell the story that Republicans can actually lead on conservation through innovation.

“Conservatives don’t want extreme government intervention, we in fact believe that market forces can drive innovation to create change,” Moore said. “And that’s what Congressman Inglis has been focused on now for a number of years. If we removed all subsidies on energy and created a true free market, then maybe these policies actually begin to make sense.”

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Practicing portraits and friendship for 23 years

By Karie Grace Duncan
Carolina News and Reporter

Trahern Cook has been painting portraits with the About Face group for nearly 10 years.

Laughter and conversation fill the room when the About Face group breaks for snacks and conversation. Then, after the brief social time, quiet descents and only pencil or brush strokes can be heard.

“Even if I’m standing in here with 20 other people, when I’m painting, I’m by myself. I’m alone in what I’m doing,” said David K. Phillips, a professional oil painter who organizes the About Face sessions. “So, when the break comes, we’re with our friends.”

During several 5-minute breaks, the artists indulge in snacks, wine and conversation. “Artists normally work better with a little libation,” David K. Phillips said.

The About Face Drawing Sessions are held each week, drawing in a group of artists from professional to novice who want to hone their portrait skills in a non-classroom setting.

During the sessions, the group breaks several times for wine and snacks that they bring to share.

“Painters usually work better with a little libation,” Phillips said.

The group has been around for 23 years, starting with just five artists meeting in a home office until they outgrew the space.

About eight years ago, About Face became part of the Columbia Museum of Art’s outreach groups. The group now meets at 701 Whaley while the museum is under construction.

In each session, artists paint or draw portraits of live models, including a model who poses in the nude. Phillips typically recruits models that he or the artists know, but anyone is welcome to suggest a new model.

“But this is a wonderful group of artists, and if somebody tells me they have someone that would be a great model, I’ll hire them,” said Phillips.

Phillips says he welcomes input from the group and trusts their judgment.

“In 23 years, we’ve only had to ask 2 or 3 people to leave for their behavior,” said Phillips. “A lot of people want to paint the nudes, but they don’t know how to behave in front of the nudes. We’ll tolerate some misbehavior, and then we’ll ask them to leave.”

Barbara Yongue paints oil portraits professionally but prefers to draw in charcoal during the About Face Drawing Sessions.

Professional portrait artist Barbara Yongue has been participating in the group sessions for 15 years.

“We’re all friends and have been friends for a long time; so it’s almost like coming to a party every time we get together,” said Yongue.

Unlike when she’s creating her commissioned oil portraits, Yongue works in charcoal during the sessions because it’s faster.

“In this situation, you’re not challenged to present as the person who’s commissioned you would like to be presented. I’m free to do my own interpretation,” Yongue said. “It’s freer.”

Yongue welcomes newcomers to join About Face; she hopes she can learn from them just as they would learn from the group.

“They’re in the best group in Columbia if they want to learn how to draw from life,” said Yongue. “That’s what makes a person a good artist, not drawing from photographs. It adds more vitality to your work. Even if you have to work from a photograph later on, working from life will carry over into working from a photograph.”

Susan Edwards has been with the group for almost three years. If you are not a professional artist, she says About Face is a great experience to practice and get better.

“I needed a dedicated time. If you’re ever going to get any better, you need to practice and do something regularly,” said Edwards. “So, making a commitment to a group was a way for me to do that.”

But Gerard Erley, a professional artist who normally paints landscapes and won best of show in the 2017 SC State Fair Fine Art contest, says the sessions can help anyone.

“I need the practice, too,” said Erley. “It doesn’t just happen.”

“Right now, my goal is to keep this running for the next 40 years and see how old I can get,” said Phillips.

And if you’re ready to dip your brush in the paint and give it a try, your first visit with the group is always free.

“You’re always our guest for the first time, no matter how tight the money is. Somebody’s going to bring something to eat, and we’ll have enough to pay the model,” said Phillips.

 

Senate bill could boost budget for underfunded Ethics Commission

By Larissa Johnson
Carolina News and Reporter

Lobbyists fill the second floor lobby of the State House while the Legislature is in session. Relationships between legislators and lobbyists, especially when money is involved, is a key focus of the State Ethics Commission.

The South Carolina State Ethics Commission, responsible for enforcing ethics laws for more than 24,000 elected officials and candidates, has been without a lawyer since October, a vacancy that could hamper enforcement of ethical  conduct laws.

“Having a general counsel is vital,” said Meghan Walker, who became executive director of the commission two weeks ago. With no other lawyers among the 11 staff members left, the commission is essentially unable to process any cases.

Michael Burchstead left the position in November to practice at Collins and Lacy P.C., and the vacancy could remain for as long as two months. The salary at the ethics commission isn’t competitive with private practice or even other state agencies, he said.

The State Ethics Commission ensures that lobbyists and state officeholders follow ethics laws by investigating and prosecuting violations, but it also serves an educational and advisory role.

From legislators to lobbyists, pretty much everyone seems to agree that the commission is underfunded. But almost every South Carolina department could make the same claim — infrastructure, education, health care. With additional money from the state’s general fund uncertain, one legislator is looking to create an alternative source of revenue for the agency.

Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, was inspired by a system every state Bar Association uses to raise money for nonprofit work. Lawyers place money they have to temporarily hold for clients into special accounts, and the earned interest goes to the Bar Association.

Timmons wants candidates and elected officials to place their campaign donations into accounts that would earn interest for the ethics commission. It’s a program that hasn’t been tried anywhere else, according to the national Campaign Finance Institute.

“I think it sounds like a terrific idea,” University of South Carolina associate professor of law Greg Adams said. The trust accounts have been a “massive benefit” around the country, he said, adding that it makes sense to fund services for a specific group by drawing money from that group.

In addition to raising about $100,000 for the Ethics Commission — about 6 percent of its current budget — the bill would make income and expenditures from campaign accounts available to investigators and journalists.

“I could allege that I raised a whole bunch of money and didn’t spend any money and nobody would know unless they looked at my bank records through a subpoena,” Timmons said. Under current law, candidates and elected officials submit their own ethics filings.

The bill has 18 co-sponsors, enough to bring it out of committee and to a vote. Timmons is working with the South Carolina Banking Association to iron out the implementation of the interest-on-campaign accounts.

John Crangle, the governmental affairs director for the S.C. Progressive Network, is considered one of the top ethics watchdogs in South Carolina.

The timing for a renewed dedication to ethics couldn’t be better, according to John Crangle, the S.C. Progressive Network governmental relations director. South Carolinians are upset about the SCANA scandal, and legislators are campaigning on bringing ethics and order to state politics.

“Now we have a younger crop of legislators, like Bill Timmons, and I think they’re going to be much more aggressive about reform,” Crangle said.

While the increase from Timmon’s bill would be less than the increase requested by the commission, it would still allow for some much needed changes such as upgraded software and new personnel, according to Crangle.

The commission received $1,643,051 from the state general fund for the current fiscal year, and has requested an additional $364,689 for next year. That would be a 22 percent increase, while Gov. Henry McMaster has asked every agency to cut budgets by 3 percent.

The commission is requesting money to add four additional positions to the 12 it currently has, including an investigator and paralegal.

When Burchstead came into the commission in 2015, there was only one full-time investigator. Now, there are four.

“For a number of years it got so bad that they had to rely on fines and fees and penalties just to pay salaries,” he said. “While the money could certainly be better, as of 2015 or so they’re not doing that any more.”

As the House Ways and Means Committee considers agency requests for funding and prepares the first draft of the 2018-2019 budget, likely to be presented in early March, the Ethics Commission is settling into new, larger offices to accommodate additional staff.

“When an agency like ours isn’t fully funded, like any other government agency, you try to do as much as you can with the resources that you have,” Walker said.

While Timmon’s bill is the only that would create revenue for the commission, others in both the S.C. House and Senate would introduce additional powers and access to information.

“There’s low public trust everywhere,” Timmons said. “We’ve got to make sure that citizens in this country have trust in their public institutions.”

“Fixing It” from The Times and Democrat

“Fixing It” from The Times and Democrat