COASTAL OBSERVER: GOP candidate comes out against drilling

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Lee Hewitt, a candidate for the Republican nomination for state House District 108, says he opposes offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean for oil and natural gas.

“I’m in the vacation rental business,” Hewitt, owner of Garden City Realty, told members of the Waccamaw Neck Republican Club this week. “I make my living renting oceanfront houses and condos, having a pristine environment. I’m going to do everything I can to be supportive of that. That might not be the popular thing to say, but it’s our biggest asset. It’s why we are all here: the beach, the marshes. We need to protect that and make sure it carries over to the next generation.”

Hewitt’s stance on offshore drilling differs from state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, who plans on leaving the seat to run for the state Senate next year. Hewitt said it will be his job to represent his constituents, and he feels a majority oppose offshore drilling. Hewitt said drilling will ultimately be a federal decision, but he will do all he can to prevent it within 3 miles of shore. A bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Offshore Production and Energizing National Security Act, includes a section called the “Southern Atlantic Energy Security Act” which mandates oil and gas drilling off the shores of the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia and eliminates the 50-mile buffer proposed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Murkowski’s bill potentially opens the drilling area to all federal waters within 3 miles offshore at the states’ water boundaries.

U.S. Rep Tom Rice has said he would oppose drilling within the 50-mile buffer, but he supports seismic testing for drilling.

“It will be great if Mr. Hewitt opposes testing and drilling, and will actively work against it. We need his help, and look forward to talking with him,” said JeanMarie Neal, spokeswoman for the group Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic. “Offshore drilling is going to be an issue in all coastal South Carolina elections. Mr. Goldfinch’s recent comments at an energy forum were very pro-drilling. Yet, every coastal South Carolina municipality is on record opposing drilling.

“We hope Congressman Rice will clarify his positions as we have heard conflicting information. This is both a state and federal issue. Voters need to know the exact position of their candidates on what is a major issue facing coastal South Carolina. Rep. Mark Sanford is very active in his opposition. That is what we need. Once the final decision is made on drilling, it is forever.”

Hewitt said his top priority as a member of the House will be tax reform. “Owning a small business and understanding the regulation and taxation involved, I think we truly need comprehensive tax reform up in Columbia,” he said. He said the state just discovered $1.2 billion in unexpected revenue: $750 million of it recurring. “I wonder where that money came from and how they underestimated,” he said. “Most importantly, how is that money going to be spent?”

Hewitt said next in priority would be jobs. “It’s great to say we want jobs,” he said. “It’s hard to get jobs with everybody going after them.” Hewitt said Mercom, a Pawleys Island computer networking contractor, is an example of the kind of industry he wants to bring to the county. “They are bringing the jobs of the future here,” he said. We are not a smokestack community in Pawleys Island. We need to reach out to businesses like that and find out what we need to do to keep them happy, help them expand, and then reach out to their friends.” Hewitt said he has a son graduating from college this year, and he wants him to have job opportunities close to home.

He said he would be an advocate for roads. “With Horry County extending Highway 31 and a four-lane 707, all that hits the same congested Highway 17,” he said. “That’s where we need to be supportive of our friends from Horry County. We need to encourage them and help them get I-73 and build the Southern Evacuation Life Line.” Hewitt said those roads and a connector crossing Highway 701 and looping around Georgetown would take pressure off Highway 17. “A third of the traffic on Highway 17 is going north-south,” he said. “It’s not planning on stopping, just coming through here. If we could eliminate a third of the traffic on Highway 17 that would go a long way toward helping solve some of the problem.”

Hewitt said environmentalists have stopped highways by appealing to the courts. “The law needs to change,” he said. “They need to be prepared to participate on the front end of a project.”

Finally, he said the state has to get more dollars into the classrooms to improve education. Some of the state’s 86 school districts need to be consolidated. When asked specifically, Hewitt said he favors allowing state funds to go to private schools and letting parents choose where children are educated.

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