listening tour

Upstate Chamber Coalition Executive Director Jason Zacher and Madison Hall, director of government relations, visited Laurens County Monday morning for a regional listening tour ahead of the legislative session reconvening.

In 20 years, Upstate South Carolina will have a population roughly the size of Charlotte’s, creating legacy issues of growth and sustainability that will have to be addressed as the region continues to expand.

Five counties — Anderson, Greenville, Laurens, Pickens and Spartanburg — expect to see their ranks swell from 1.2 million people to 1.6 million by 2040.

“That means we have a lot of challenges we’re going to have to work through,” Jason Zacher, executive director of the Upstate Chamber Coalition, said Monday during a listening tour at Lee’s Barbecue in Waterloo.

With an influx of new residents, the need for new jobs, housing and modern infrastructure will expand along with them.

“The Greenville-Anderson-Spartanburg metro areas have 10,000 open jobs in any given month. That’s already a huge problem that’s holding back economic growth in the Upstate, even as fast as we’re moving,” Zacher said.

Affordable housing, workforce development and public transit will continue to be priorities for regional planners as the demographics change, Zacher said.

But there are also pressing topics that lawmakers need to be focusing on in the present, he said.

Pension reformAs the state grapples with how to shrink a massive $20 billion shortfall in its retirement system, Zacher said the coalition – which represents the interests of 11 chambers of commerce – favors the implementation of a 401(k) option for newly hired employees.

“It’s not a popular thing to say, but we are paying out a lot more than we are taking in in the pension system. We have to figure out a plan like several other states have done that stops the new people coming in and converts them to a 401(k),” Zacher said.

The portability of a 401(k) creates flexibility for employers, who will stop paying into it once a worker leaves.

“The idea of a pension is not what it was 30 years ago,” Zacher said, although keeping the system in place for police officers, firefighters and other first responders is sensible since they generally have shorter careers and doing more hazardous work.

Santee CooperDivesting South Carolina of the scandal-plagued utility, Zacher said, is in the best interests of all.

“We’ve supported the sale of Santee Cooper because of the potential statewide budget impact. If we end up having to absorb the debt that Santee Cooper has, that is debt service that cannot be used for higher teacher bay, it cannot be used for infrastructure, it cannot be used for name your program that needs to be funded.”

Import-Export Bank

restorationSince 2010, the U.S. Export-Import Bank has financed nearly 50 companies statewide — half of which are small businesses. The problem is that its charter expired on Monday, but a House-approved continuing resolution will keep it solvent through November.

“We need to get it extended,” Zacher said. Some of its largest clients include Boeing and General Electric, which has a large Upstate presence. Zacher said 2,500 jobs in the 4th Congressional District rely on the bank.

“They’re sending widgets to Namibia or something like that, and they can’t get regular bank financing for this kind of thing,” he said.

With a default rate of less than 1% and a track record of returning money to the federal government, Zacher said a fully functional bank is necessary for long-term economic stability in the region.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.