Originally created 06/03/04

Senate delay threatens jobs



AIKEN - A state tax break considered crucial to a planned $400 million expansion of the Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s Beech Island plant is in danger of dying in the South Carolina Senate today, placing 100 new jobs for Aiken County in jeopardy, a key lawmaker said Wednesday night.

State Rep. Roland Smith, the chairman of the Aiken County legislative delegation, said the Senate version of a bill he sponsored to passage by the House two months ago is being held up on the last day of the 2004 legislative session by Senate Majority Leader and Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and the committee's vice chairman, state Sen. Verne Smith, R-Greenville.

Unless the Senate bill, sponsored by state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, is passed early today, there won't be time for the House to consider and approve an amendment before a 5 p.m. deadline. Because the Senate bill has been amended, the House also has to pass the measure.

If lawmakers don't beat this last-second deadline, they won't be able to consider the measure until next year.

That could kill Aiken County's chances of benefiting both from construction associated with the expansion and from the 100 new high-paying jobs slated for creation at the Kimberly-Clark tissue and paper products plant, Mr. Smith said.

"If we don't get it done, it has the potential of costing us jobs," he said.

"If it fails, it means jobs. It's enough so that I have grave concern ... There's still a breath of hope. I still have a possibility of getting it out," he said.

Legislative sources say the Senate bill, which would remove a 10-year limit on Kimberly-Clark's ability to get state investment tax credits for job creation, is being bottled up by Mr. Leatherman and Mr. Smith because of anger at Mr. Ryberg.

The Aiken Republican earned their pique by recently invoking the Senate's 24-hour rule, which delayed that body's consideration of a conference committee report on the budget, and by opposing legislation pushed by Mr. Leatherman that would allow public school districts to leverage construction money for new schools, the sources said.

Mr. Ryberg said he was "flabbergasted" by Mr. Leatherman's opposition, particularly in light of the powerful Senate leader's push to have the measure passed by his committee.

"I don't know what their objection is," Mr. Ryberg said of Mr. Leatherman and Mr. Smith's opposition to the bill.

"He voted it out of the committee, so why oppose it now?" the Aiken lawmaker said of Mr. Leatherman. "I would think if he's got a problem with my position and is holding me hostage, as you imply, he would sit down with me."

Mr. Ryberg said neither Mr. Leatherman nor Mr. Smith has talked to him about objecting to the Kimberly-Clark legislation.

Earlier this year, the Aiken County Council approved a $1.55 million in-lieu-of-tax payment on the planned expansion, which will save Kimberly-Clark about $2.5 million a year, a measure deemed equally crucial to new jobs coming to the Beech Island facility.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.