State must be ready to fight for its bases

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State must be ready to fight for its bases

Published Friday, January 20, 2012   |  584 Words  |  

Given all that military bases mean to Beaufort County and South Carolina, it is troubling that more has not been done to ensure they continue to play an important role in our economic future.

One hopes we're not outflanked by more proactive states when the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission reconvenes, as surely it will in this time of budget deficits and draw-down in major, overseas entanglements.

The Obama administration and the Department of Defense earlier this month mandated $487 billion in cuts to the U.S. military over the next 10 years. Even if that reduction is achieved primarily through program cuts, the Palmetto State's employment landscape still could be at risk: Witness the importance of the controversial Joint Strike Fighter to the mission of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Although this storm has gathered conspicuously, the state task force that is supposed to protect South Carolina's bases from closure wasn't re-chartered by Gov. Nikki Haley until Dec. 22 and hasn't had a full contingent of 26 appointees since she took office last February.

In addition, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, who is chairman of the task force, has not called a meeting in more than a year or hired an executive coordinator -- a full-time employee who works with base-support groups across the state.

The coordinator's job is full time for a reason: Where economic development is concerned, it makes as much sense to protect the assets you have as it does to develop new ones.

In her state of the state address Wednesday, Haley touted $5 billion in business investment and nearly 20,000 new jobs for the state since she took office. But those gains would be greatly eroded if the substantial military presence here is diminished.

About 21,000 military members report South Carolina as their state of residence for tax purposes, according to a recent Reuters report. The combined annual economic impact of installations in South Carolina's four military communities -- Beaufort, Columbia, Charleston and Sumter -- is $13 billion. That's more than the annual economic impact of Boeing or BMW.

In Beaufort County, the impact is $1.2 billion from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Naval Hospital Beaufort, according to the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. Beaufort has maintained its military presence through previous rounds of base closings in 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005.

Statewide efforts also paid off in the last round, when Fort Jackson in Columbia and Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter gained missions. But South Carolina learned the value of preparedness the hard way: In the 1990s, Charleston lost a naval base and Myrtle Beach an Air Force base.

Eckstrom told The (Columbia) State newspaper that the task force has limited resources. It didn't receive funding from the General Assembly last year, and the House of Representatives attempted to take back the $300,000 it had saved through the years for BRAC efforts. For this, the legislature shares in the blame.

Haley, in a written response to questions posed by The State, said that she and Eckstrom "concluded it wouldn't be wise to devise or commit to a particular strategy before we knew what the threat would be from Washington."

However, even if one concedes it is pointless to set strategy right now -- and we make no such concession -- it most assuredly is not premature to assemble the team that will formulate and carry it out.