$550M port upgrade debate begins in S.C. Senate

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Some of South Carolina's longest serving and most powerful senators began their push Tuesday to get the state to borrow $550 million to bring more technology and rail service to the port in Charleston.

They were met with skepticism from other senators who questioned whether the state should let a private company handle the upgrades, wanted more oversight of the State Ports Authority or wondered if the proposal had been fully vetted.

The up to $550 million would go for new rail lines to allow more containers to go straight from ships to trains as well as barges that could be controlled by technology to move containers from terminal to terminal. There would be projects to expand roads, add cranes and other infrastructure.

The start of debate on the proposal brought Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman down to the Senate floor. The 89-year-old Florence Republican has spent much of this session in the balcony to lessen his risk of getting COVID-19.

A new terminal opening soon at the Charleston port is named for Leatherman in honor of his 37 years in the Senate.

The debate is likely to go on several days if not weeks. $550 million is about 5% of the state budget that lawmakers have control over spending, but the state would pay back the bonds at $43 million a year over 15 years. South Carolina last issued bonds to this scale in 1999 when they borrowed $750 million for school buildings.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who gives great scrutiny to how tax money is spent on economic development and private business, warned fellow senators to take their time and be careful.

Vaccine delays leave grocery workers feeling expendable

As panicked Americans cleared supermarkets of toilet paper and food last spring, grocery employees gained recognition as among the most indispensable of the pandemic's front-line workers.

A year later, most of those workers are waiting their turn to receive COVID-19 vaccines, with little clarity about when that might happen.

A decentralized vaccine campaign has resulted in a patchwork of policies that differ from state to state, and even county to county in some areas, resulting in an inconsistent rollout to low-paid essential workers who are exposed to hundreds of customers each day.

Texas is among several states that have decided to leave grocery and other essential workers out of the second phase of its vaccination effort, instead prioritizing adults over 65 and people with chronic medical conditions.

Focusing on older adults is an approach many epidemiologists support as the most ethical and efficient because it will help reduce deaths and hospitalizations faster. People over 65 account for 80% of deaths in the country, according to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention.