Inside Interview: State Senator Tom Davis

Beaufort Senator Tom Davis may be wrapping up his first year in the Senate, but he’s no newcomer to state politics. He served as Chief of Staff for Governor Sanford, returning to Beaufort to defeat Senator Catherine Ceips in one of last year’s most high-profile legislative races.

We have to give the guy credit. Even though the Blogland has been no friend to Governor Sanford, Davis' former employer, he reached out to us quickly after winning his Senate race in the summer of last year.

A fellow Catholic, he’s an attorney by profession who lives in Beaufort with his wife and their three daughters. He even met with yours truly and my daughter Bonnie for lunch recently and agreed to answer a few questions to help our readers learn a little bit more about him:

Between a law practice, family, handling constituent issues in such a widespread district, as well as legislative business in Columbia, how do you work to keep all these things in balance?

Well, the honest answer is that right now I don’t have them in balance, as my wife and law partners will attest. The State Senate will absorb all your time if you let it, and so far I pretty much have. As an attorney it is my practice to read and study every single document that comes before me prior to taking any action, and I’ve carried this habit with me to the State Senate – reading and then asking questions about every bill that comes before me, whether in subcommittee, committee or on in the chamber. So that takes up pretty much all my time during the legislative session (January to June). And this past summer, while session was out, I spent on average about three nights a week giving talks, attending community events, etc. , and about three hours during the day handling constituent issues or working on initiatives important to my constituents (for example, the new ocean terminal being planned for Jasper County). My resolution for the New Year is to budget my time better so that I can spend more time with my family and practicing law.

What’s the biggest issue affecting your part of the state, and how can this be addressed (and/or how is it being addressed)?

The EFA funding formula for public education really hammers Beaufort County. Last year we paid $134 million in taxes that went into the EFA reallocation bucket and got nothing back – all of our tax dollars went elsewhere. No other county in the state received zero in EFA funds. The EFA funding formula is broken, primarily because other areas of the state have "gamed" the system to take their industrial property tax base off their assessment roles and out of the fund reallocation formula. Problem is, the money the state allocates for public education is fixed, which means that for every EFA dollar our county is able to get, some other area (or combination of areas) in the state will get one dollar less. So legislators from areas who benefit from the current formula dig their heels in, regardless of the inequity. As state senator for Beaufort County, it is my job to get this thing fixed, and I need to advance every single possible legal argument and to make every single policy argument and to develop every single alliance with other legislators that I can. Other counties are also shafted by the EFA formula (though not as much as Beaufort County is). If I can get legislators from those other counties – Charleston and Horry, for example – to realize that this unfair formula shortchanges their constituents millions of dollars, perhaps a change can be leveraged. I know I can do it alone; I need allies.

You crossed over from an executive role in state government to a legislative role. What are some of the biggest differences, and how have you dealt with those changes?

In the executive branch, you’re always being forced to make quick decisions and you almost always in a “reactive” mode; problems arise that have to be dealt with immediately. In the legislative branch, there is the opportunity to think more strategically and proactively; the work is more methodical, incremental, collaborative and deliberative. Or to put the difference another way, in the executive branch the work comes to you – you are forced to deal with incoming – and in the legislative branch you “choose” what to spend your time on – education or Medicaid or tort reform, etc. – based on your assessment of what is in the public’s best interest.

What’s an issue or two that you plan to be heavily involved in next year’s session?

Well, first would be the EFA funding formula. But a very close second would be reforming how we tax as a state. Our tax code has 112 sales tax loopholes. There is no rhyme or reason to these tax breaks; they range from portable toilet rentals to time shares, newspapers to direct mail postage, amusement park machinery to manufactured housing. It makes no sense to have a tax system that encourages private parties to fight over obtaining public favors. When it becomes profitable for them to put time and money into lobbying politicians for favors, then that is precisely what they will do. The bottom line is that no South Carolinian should get special treatment at the expense of another and all special sales tax breaks to expire by a certain date unless a new law is passed to keep them. Some exemptions, such as the one on grocery sales, make sense and are broad-based. But since the 112 special tax breaks represent about $2.5 billion annually, closing even a fraction of them would result in a huge revenue increase. That new revenue should then be used to lower the state sales tax and the state income tax across the board so that everyone pays lower taxes, not just the politically connected. Lower taxes for everyone promotes free market entrepreneurship and discovery – the true sources of prosperity. That new revenue should under no circumstance, however, be used to increase state spending. Yes, there have been substantial budget cuts in the past two years, but state government spending grew by 41 percent in the four years prior. State government has enough money to discharge core functions if it is forced – as private households are – to spend wisely.

I also need to make sure the new ocean terminal being planned for Jasper County stays on track. Geographically, the Jasper County site has everything working in its favor. It is much closer to the ocean than Savannah’s terminal. It is also close to an excellent system of interstate highways and it is accessible by rail. And it is a surrounded by thousands of undeveloped acres that could easily support maritime and commercially related infrastructure. Moreover, South Carolina and Georgia have recognized that each has the power to stop the other’s independent development of the terminal – the South Carolina legislature even made a cooperative effort part of state law. And working together the two states have made impressive strides. Lawsuits have been dismissed, title to the port site has been conveyed by Georgia to a bi-state partnership and engineering for the terminal is underway. But there are a few legislators in South Carolina who now want to undo that state policy, believing that building a new port in Jasper County is a zero-sum game – that gains there do mean losses for the port in Charleston. That is wrong and short sighted: market studies show that over the next 15 to 20 years, shippers will need our region to annually handle millions of TEUs (“twenty-foot equivalency units,” or shipping boxes) that the ports in Charleston and Savannah are not large enough to handle. A new port in Jasper County could meet this surplus demand. If South Carolina and Georgia continue to work together, our region will become the most powerful shipping entry point on the East coast. And if we fail to build the new port, of course, the projected unmet demand, and the economic benefits of meeting it, will go elsewhere (most likely to the port in Norfolk).

Tell our readers about an interesting, but often-overlooked, place - or two - in your district that is well worth their time to visit.

Daufuskie Island is incredible. You can only get there by boat, so that’s why it’s often overlooked. On the boat ride over you see dolphins everywhere; it’s truly amazing. There are very few cars or paved roads on the island, and being there is like stepping back in time. And since there are only about 430 permanent residents, everybody knows everyone. If you’re ever in the Lowcountry, definitely make the time for a visit.

1 Response to "Inside Interview: State Senator Tom Davis"

  1. Anonymous 29/12/09 09:07
    Really smart guy - most of the time... needs to shake off the Sanford-ite wrappings (that includes backing Haley VERY prematurely in this election cycle).

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