December 18, 2014

Governor Haley wants ethics reform from South Carolina lawmakers

Governor Nikki Haley Wednesday making her case for ethics reform.  South Carolina Radio Network photo.

Governor Nikki Haley Wednesday making her case for ethics reform.
South Carolina Radio Network photo.

With just weeks before the new state legislative session gets underway, Governor Nikki Haley is making it clear that she wants at least one thing from lawmakers this time around: ethics reform.

On Wednesday the governor made her case by running down a list of elected officials in South Carolina who had violated the law in some way during her first term.

“In my administration time we have watched a Lt. Governor (Ken Ard) get indicted. We’ve watched a Speaker (Bobby Harrell) get indicted. We’ve watched a senator (Robert Ford) get indicted. And I have removed eight sheriffs. I think now is the time for ethics reform.” Haley told reporters Wednesday afternoon in the lobby of the Statehouse. “I think it’s time to say enough is enough.”

Haley said it is also about giving the taxpayers what they expect from a law-abiding state government. “This is just about a clean government. This is about a transparent government. This is about an ethical government and this is about giving the taxpayers what they deserve.” Said Haley.

The governor’s call for ethics reform came on the same day as former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts’ proposed plea agreement was rejected by a federal judge. Metts is one of those sheriffs the governor mentioned she had to remove during her first term.

A federal grand jury indicted Metts in June on multiple counts of accepting cash bribes to let illegal Mexican aliens out of his jail and let them avoid deportation.

Metts will now go to trial in January.

As for what she’s looking for in ethics reform legislation, Haley said she want’s two things especially: full income disclosure from legislators and independent investigations of legislators that are handled outside of the House Ethics Committee and the Senate Ethics Committee.

Educators unhappy with state’s replacement for Common Core standards

Members of the Education Oversight Committee listen to concerns about the new standards on Monday (Courtesy: SCETV)

Members of the Education Oversight Committee listen to concerns about the new standards on Monday (Courtesy: SCETV)

South Carolina officials are not happy with new education standards which will take effect next year, saying the short window the state Education Department had to draft the benchmarks made them worse than the Common Core version they are supposed to replace.

State lawmakers this spring ordered the Department of Education to review the Common Core math standards and English and language arts standards by January 1. The law signed by Gov. Nikki Haley also requires the state Board of Education, Education Oversight Committee (EOC), and state legislature to adopt new standards by the 2015-2016 school year next August. The move came after conservative groups pushed to replace Common Core, which took full effect in the current 2014-2015 year.

But during an EOC briefing on Monday, some of the very people reviewing the new standards insisted the tight timeframe was only making things worse.

“Time was of the element,” said Debbie Barron, a Greenville County specialist who helped review the new English benchmarks. “That perhaps led us to an inferior set of standards.”

[Read more…]

Haley picks Clemson youth outreach leader as new DSS director

Alford comes to DSS from Clemson's youth outreach program

Alford comes to DSS from Clemson’s youth outreach program

Gov. Nikki Haley has picked the next director of South Carolina’s embattled Department of Social Services — even as lawmakers debate whether to break up the child services agency.

During an introductory press briefing Monday, Haley revealed her choice of Susan Alford to lead the agency tasked with child services and public family benefits. Alford replaces previous director Lillian Koller, who stepped down in June after criticism over how the agency handled abuse and neglect investigations that ended with several children dying.

Alford has led the Girls Center, part of the Youth Learning Institute outreach program at Clemson University, since 2007. The center’s website states that it helps “children, youth, families, and individuals of all ages to improve their health and wellbeing (sic) through research and education.” Prior to that she was an executive at South Carolina’s teen detention agency Department of Juvenile Justice during Gov. Mark Sanford’s administration.

Alford said she could think of no mission more important than at DSS. “We have to work with all of DSS’s stakeholders and that includes everybody,” she told reporters during Monday’s press conference. “From the state to the county, county leaders, the legislature, law enforcement, the judiciary, child advocates everywhere, nonprofits, we all have to be part of the solution.”

[Read more…]

Agreement with utilities clears way for solar to grow in SC

solar-panel-1428025-mSolar power in South Carolina got a big boost this week after most utilities which operate in the state agreed to credit homeowners and businesses for any excess power they generate through solar panels that ends up going back into the grid.

Under the 10-year agreement announced Thursday, Duke Energy, South Carolina Electric & Gas, and other electric cooperatives across South Carolina agreed to give customers a full retail credit for any excess power they generate. For example, a customer whose is able to generate 1 kilowatt-hour of excess power over the course of a month would receive a corresponding credit on their bill at the end of the month.

“This settlement agreement essentially creates an option for customers that we think will be financially attractive, fair, and will support a growing solar market in the state,” said Hamilton Davis, the energy director at Coastal Conservation League who helped negotiate the arrangement.

The new “net metering” rates were required under the Distributed Energy Resource Program Act passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Nikki Haley this year. The law did not address the specifics of net metering, but instead ordered solar companies, conservation groups, and utilities to come up with an agreement.

The agreement will cover any customers who set up solar equipment on their property by 2021. It must be approved by the Public Service Commission (PSC) in the next few months. The agreement does not cover customers for state-owned power utility Santee-Cooper, which is not regulated by the PSC.

Alternative energy groups have said net metering is critical to growing solar power in South Carolina, which has lagged behind its neighboring states. Davis said the credits can pay back the relatively expensive costs of installing solar panels within 5-10 years depending on the customer. “Those times are coming down as the cost of solar decreases and electricity rates increase,” he told South Carolina Radio Network.

Power utilities had previously held reservations about net metering, noting that solar customers would still need to pay for the costs of operating the grid. But they did not express any negative sentiments when announcing the agreement this week. “We believe this is a positive step for South Carolina and the future of solar energy in our state,” Duke Energy South Carolina President Clark Gillespy said in the statement.

DSS hires 250, but admits it’s still struggling with employee turnover

DSS Acting Director Amber Gillum (Image: SCETV/File)

DSS Acting Director Amber Gillum (Image: SCETV/File)

The interim director of South Carolina’s embattled child services agency says she is hiring more caseworkers while at the same time trying to centralize the initial handling of abuse or neglect cases.

But acting Department of Social Services director Amber Gillum informed a state Senate oversight panel Thursday that her agency is still struggling with high turnover.

Gillum said DSS had hired 250 new caseworkers and supervisors since this summer, but also had 139 employees leave during that time. That left a net increase of 111 employees, she told senators.

“I wish it was more, but I think we’re making progress,” she said. “We’re going to get there. It’s just going to take us a little bit of time to get all of those folks… fully trained and able to take on full caseloads.” Gilum said it would take some time to properly train the new hires.

The agency had told senators back in September it would need to hire 202 new employees to get its caseloads in line. DSS has been under fire from lawmakers and child advocates since January after Senate investigators found overworked employees were missing red flags and not following up in cases that eventually led to child deaths from abuse or neglect. Previous DSS Director Lillian Koller resigned in June. Gov. Nikki Haley has said she is still searching for a full-time candidate to replace Koller.

Gillum also revealed Thursday that DSS is setting up a new hotline to handle incoming abuse reports. Calls to the hotline would be handled at one of six regional offices, she told the Senate panel. Currently, a person must call their local DSS office in each of the state’s 46 counties. She hoped the regional hub system will help improve how investigators handle the initial reports of abuse.

Senators said they were still concerned about high turnover at DSS, but said it appeared the agency was heading in the right direction.

“I kind of get this gut (feeling) that we are slowly turning the corner,” State Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat and admitted critic of DSS, told Gillum, “I think we were at rock-bottom… It took admitting and conceding that things were not good and that we had one hell of a problem to deal with.”