Sen. Thomas McElveen: protecting the environment, advancing the economy

April 26, 2023

Sen. Thomas McElveen (Left) joined by Rep. Rusell Ott (Right) at a Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation meeting. (Photo courtesy of Sen. McElveen)

By: Matthew Goins 

Sen. Thomas McElveen vividly remembers the moment as if it were yesterday. It was a moment that would arguably define his tenure in the state senate.

He was approached in the lobby and asked if he would be pro-business or pro-conservation during his first week in the state legislature in 2013.

“My immediate response was that I intend to do both,” said McElveen. “Economic development and conservation have been two of my biggest issues during my ten-year legislative career. We’ve had great wins and great strides in both efforts.”

Since he entered the state senate, the Sumter native and avid outdoorsman has been a leading voice in balancing ecological and economic efforts in the state.

“What policymakers must understand, especially in a state like South Carolina, is that there is a delicate balance between economic development and conservation,” said McElveen. “Those two things are not mutually exclusive. The wonderful natural resources we have is probably one of the biggest things that attract folks here. You don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

McElveen has sat on the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Committee on Fish, Game, and Forestry since his freshman term.

“I have taken great personal satisfaction in being able to serve on these committees for the last ten years.,” said McElveen. “The issues they take up are important to the people I represent, the future generations of this state, and the future conservation of this state.”

The avid outdoorsman is also a member of the South Carolina Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, a group of bipartisan lawmakers devoted to passing legislation to preserve and advance the rights and opportunities of outdoorsmen. He believes groups like this, along with the natural landscape of South Carolina, make issues like boating and fishing a heavily bipartisan, if not unanimous, effort.

“Boating and fishing are two of those things that are hard to be against it,” said McElveen. “Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or somewhere in between, you’re going to have constituents of all political persuasions who enjoy outdoor activities.”

He also credits the South Carolina Boating & Fishing Alliance for educating and exposing lawmakers to the industry and its impact on the state.

“The Alliance formed to bring awareness to the fact that we have so many folks involved in the boating and fishing industry,” said McElveen. “It’s important to have those folks come together and have a unified voice.”

One of the earliest things the Alliance exposed the state legislature to was the array of boat manufacturers and the number of jobs they provide. It also shed light on the tax burden that smaller manufacturers in the state faced.

McElveen was a member of a bipartisan group of senators, led by Senate Finance Chairman Harvey Peeler, who authored a historic tax reform bill, S.1087, which Gov. Henry McMaster signed last summer. The bill included a manufacturing property tax reduction for certain manufacturers. The property tax rate was reduced from 9% to 6%, which equates to $100 million annually.

“Manufacturing property tax is something that needed attention,” said McElveen. “It will make it easier, especially for smaller manufacturers, to be more productive and successful in South Carolina.”

In addition to the abundance of boat manufacturers and the jobs they provide, McElveen believes the abundance of natural resources the state has, despite its size, makes South Carolina unique and further affirms why conservation efforts are crucial.

“It’s important that we pay attention to conservation and the things that uniquely make us South Carolina,” said McElveen. “The bottom line is that we have all these wonderful things, and we’re a fairly small state,” said McElveen.

As a resident of Sumter County, he considers the restocking efforts at Packs Landing to be a clear illustration of how conservation efforts can enhance the state’s economy.

Packs Landing was quite the destination for anglers due to the abundance of striped bass and largemouth bass for quite some time. However, overfishing led to a scarce population and a sharp decline in tourism in the area. The decline led the state legislature to pass funding for stocking efforts throughout the state.

“I think it is incumbent upon us as lawmakers to not only consider the opportunity but the role that it plays with tourism in our state, which is one of our state’s biggest industries,” said McElveen.

Despite the havoc COVID-19 reaped on the state, there was a sharp increase in ecotourism. According to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, the state saw $54 million in revenue at state parks last year, a sharp increase from the $34 million before the pandemic. In 2019, tourism had a $24 billion economic impact. That number reached $26 billion in 2021.

“In South Carolina, you don’t have to go far to find a place to fish or to hunt,” said McElveen. “A lot of folks reconnected with getting their families outdoors more.”

Increased traffic on waters around the state not only revealed the size and impact of recreational boating and fishing; it also revealed the need for boater safety laws and education, as well. McElveen has witnessed the impact the lack of boater safety can have on families across the state, which is why he is a leader in passing common-sense boater safety laws.

“During my first term in office, a young lady was killed on Lake Marion, and I know her folks very well,” said McElveen. “This piqued my interest to engage more on the issue as a policy maker.”

According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), there has been a continual increase in boating accidents in the last five years. In 2022, there were 170 boating accidents and 22 boating fatalities, compared to 142 accidents and 15 fatalities in 2018.

McElveen joined a group of bipartisan senators and cosponsored S.96. The bill recently passed the Senate unanimously and currently sits in the House Judiciary Committee. If passed, the bill would require anyone born after July 1, 2007, to complete a boating safety course before operating a watercraft.

“You can be the most experienced boater in the world, and you can have the skills to do it the right way, but you can’t control what someone else does,” said McElveen. “We need to continue to make sure that we do what we can to pass policy to keep folks safe and make sure they understand boating safety and how to operate a boat responsibly.”

As one raised on the water as a child, McElveen is now teaching his children how to be responsible on the water, be good stewards of the state’s natural beauty, and enjoy the peace and wonder they provide.

“It is incumbent upon us to make sure this next generation understands the natural heritage bestowed upon them and what their role is in protecting it and appreciating it.”

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