MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he's prioritizing major projects for Horry County, such as beach renourishment and Interstate 73, while debating bills and voting on Capitol Hill.
He talked with business people and politicians at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning.
"I learn every time I come," Graham said. "I try to keep my hand on the pulse of what's going on in coastal areas of South Carolina because it's a cash cow for the state."
Graham said he's not confident about the fiscal year 2018 budget, calling it a disaster. However, he noted the fiscal year 2017 budget, which will run from April 28 through Sept. 30, is coming together.
"I think we're going to get there because if the government shuts down, the Republican Party will get all the blame because we run the place," he said.
Graham said the FY17 budget could have supplemental funding in it for the military, and extra dollars from that could go to beach renourishment.
"I'm optimistic there will be beach renourishment money and the Corps of Engineers will be in good shape," he said.
The senator is not sure what FY18 will mean for renourishment, however.
"The Corps of Engineers is essential to grow our economy and protect our environment. Their budget gets slammed," Graham said of President Donald Trump's proposed FY18 budget.
According to Graham, the government needs to avoid sequestration in 2018, so cuts don't have to be made to beach renourishment. He said reforming entitlement programs is one way to help do this.
"Trump's got to lead an effort to replace sequestration with some entitlement reform that's not going to structurally change Social Security or Medicare, but will save money over time," he said. "We've got to look at the tax code and make it more efficient and take some of the sweet, hard deals out and take that money to rebuild the country's infrastructure."
As far as I-73 is concerned, Graham said he knows how important it is to Horry County.
"Wouldn't it be great to have an interstate from 95 down here to the Grand Strand and everything in the middle would have an opportunity to grow their economy as well as for you to have people come here? This is so important for rural South Carolina to build this road," he said.
He hopes permitting for the project could be finished within the year.
"We are dealing with every group known to mankind in the conservation world to make this project hard. We're beginning to turn a corner," Graham said. "I've been on two conference calls where it was very easy to understand what Tom [Rice] and I had to say. The answer is yes when it comes to I-73."
However, the senator said the project needs $1 billion and the money isn't there right now. He proposes using repatriation to fund it, along with other projects in an infrastructure bill.
"The key to paying for it is to lower corporate taxes to get the money back into the country, dedicate the revenue to pay for the infrastructure bill," Graham said.
He said he hopes an infrastructure bill can pass that sets aside money for roads of national significance. I-73 is one of them.
"I will not vote for an infrastructure bill that doesn't take care of I-73," Graham said.
Regarding the corporate tax rate, Graham wants to see it lowered as part of tax reform. He suggested President Trump find out what infrastructure projects are important to individual Democrats and tie those in to the infrastructure bill to get their vote on tax reform.
"I think what we'll wind up doing is have a tax cut package married up with infrastructure that will be hard for a lot of people to vote no because the American business community needs their taxes lowered because you're competing in an international world right now," he said. "God knows our bridges, roads and our waterways are in disrepair."
Graham also told the audience Tuesday that Congress is looking to change some regulations for visas, which could help increase the number of visas available by 50,000 or more. That would give local businesses access to more workers for positions they can't seem to get filled.
"I come down here to listen to business people," he said. "There are labor problems down here you wouldn't believe. It's hard to find people to work in hotels and restaurants on a regular basis. The reason I come so much is I learn every time I come."
Graham is in favor of what he calls merit-based immigration, which offers green cards for specific professions in need of workers.
He said people who are part of the Dream Act, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as small children but have lived their lives here, have visas that begin to expire next year, so the government needs to give them legal status in order to get Democrats to support stronger border security and decrease illegal immigration.
He said the country needs a national e-verify system to punish employers who try to hire illegal immigrants over Americans because he says Americans should have access to jobs first, but he understands some jobs go unfilled if they're limited to Americans only.
"If you can't find Americans to do the job at a good wage with good benefits, then I want to open up the world to your business, so you can't go out of business," Graham said.