You know the General Assembly is ready to convene for its 2010 session when legislators start pre-filing bills, and you have that sinking feeling that when they go home in June not a damned thing is going to be better for this god-forsaken state. Our legislators will do anything to distract themselves, to distract the public, to pretend to be doing something to earn another term in Columbia. The artifice of governance goes on, year after year, and we never figure out which shell the pea is hiding under — and that it doesn't matter anyway.
Charleston Rep. Wendell Gilliard has a reputation for grandstanding and making much ado over little. His latest stunt is perhaps his craziest. (I will resist the obvious pun which this story so richly deserves.) He wants to allow guests at Charlestowne Landing and other state parks to be able to collect pecans for five dollars a bag and then apply that fee toward the general budget. Of course, that budget got cut by hundreds of millions of dollars this past year. Does Gilliard really think he is solving a problem with this harebrained fundraising scheme?
If that idea is silly, Sen. Chip Campsen's bill is downright insidious — insidious because it will allow our lawmakers and the public a smug sense of self-satisfaction, while doing almost nothing to protect the most vulnerable members of society.
Campsen wants to ban registered sex offenders from internet social networking sites for the purpose of protecting underage children from sexual predators. The bill, patterned after one in New York State, involves turning names of registered sex offenders over to social network managers, who then cancel their accounts.
Worthy goal, to be sure, and you really must admire Campsen for standing up to the powerful sexual predator lobby and saying, Enough is enough. And I have no doubt that our courageous General Assembly will fall in behind the senator from Mt. Pleasant in telling sexual predators that our children are off limits. The Post and Courier has even gotten into this crusade with a recent column by editor emeritus Barbara Williams. Yes, she's against sexual predators, too!
After this law is passed — as I am sure it will be — I wonder what new steps our fearless leaders will take to make South Carolina children safe. They will certainly have their work cut out for them.
S.C. has one of the highest teen smoking rates in the nation, yet spends less than any other state on programs to prevent children from using tobacco. S.C. ranks eighth in the nation in teen birthrate; not surprising since our lawmakers would rather give sexually active teens Jesus than condoms.
S.C. students still rank 49th or 50th annually in SAT scores, and the number of S.C. students eligible for free and reduced-price meals ranks second-highest in the nation. In fact, the Palmetto state was recently number one for the number of households with people who go without food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's a lot of children going to school hungry.
In other surveys, S.C. had the highest school dropout rate in the nation and ranked 41st in overall achievement, based on test scores related to reading and math performance, high school graduation rates, and Advanced Placement exams.
In the annual report from the Every Child Matters Education Fund, S.C. ranked 45th in the nation on overall child well-being. The ranking was based on 10 criteria, including infant death rate, death rate of older children, births to teen mothers, births to women receiving late or no prenatal care, children living in poverty, uninsured children, juvenile incarceration rate, child abuse fatalities, and per capita child welfare expenditures. Nowhere did the study factor in the threat of sexual predators on the internet — the great danger that seems to keep Chip Campsen and Barbara Williams awake at night.
Another irony in Campsen's bill is that children cannot encounter sexual predators online if they do not have a computer, and S.C. ranks 44th in the nation for internet access in the home. Slightly less than 60 percent of South Carolina homes had access last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Computer access in S.C. public schools is also among the lowest in the nation.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if Campsen were as worried about providing online access as he is about dirty old men hanging out on social networking sites? But he probably considers lack of access to be a way of protecting children from predators.
With leadership like Gilliard's and Campsen's, I am confident we will soon feel much better about our budget and the future of our children.
Read more about S.C.'s official child neglect at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.