Horry County's newest lawmaker sees challenges ahead

Horry County's newest lawmaker sees challenges ahead

In less than a week, South Carolina lawmakers will be back at work in Columbia, dealing with issues ranging from balancing the budget to unemployment.

With mandates from Washington and an infrastructure that needs fixing, state lawmakers have their work cut out for them and no one knows that better than the newest member of Horry County's statehouse delegation.

Newly-elected State Sen. Greg Hembree of Little River thinks lawmakers this year will make ethics reform a priority, to fix the election filing mess that resulted in 200 candidates being thrown off the ballot last year. He says there's a lot of interest and bipartisan support to quickly resolve the issue.

Next on the agenda he says will be what to do about the state's Medicaid program.

"There's a mandate that's come down from the federal government to expand Medicaid significantly. And whether or not to do that, how South Carolina's going to deal with that issue, so that will be hotly debated," Hembree said.

Hembree says South Carolina maintains more state roads per capita than just about any other state, while having one of the lowest gas taxes in the country. He expects infrastructure improvements and how to pay for them to be a big issue this year.

As a former prosecutor, Hembree wants to reform the state's truth-in-sentencing laws and has already pre-filed a bill toward that end.

Today, he says sentencing for many crimes is left up to what he calls an uncertain system.

"Now, we sort of play this guessing game of what to sentence somebody to, based on what we think they should actually serve in jail. It's not good for the defendants, it's not good for the victims, it's not good for the public."

Hembree says he's optimistic but a realist about what he can accomplish as a freshman lawmaker. State government is a broad and complicated piece of machinery, he says, and he expects to learn more from others than they will learn from him.

"I think the best thing a new legislator can do is to build personal credibility, to build relationships with the other members of the general assembly and those outside the general assembly in government that are the experts in the field."

Unlike Washington, the state government has to balance its budget and live within its means, which Hembree says is a good thing. It forces lawmakers to constantly ask themselves, What is the appropriate role for government?

The 2013 General Assembly convenes Tuesday, Jan. 8.