07 Feb How Far is Columbia’s Reach?
During my years in the SC House of Representatives, (1992-96) I was often told “the only time the state is safe is when the legislature is not in session.” Of course I took it in jest since I believe members of the General Assembly are good people doing their best to serve the people who elect them. (Well, most of them!)
That said, I did not run for a third term because I felt there was little collaborative focus, the body jumped from one issue to another without reason and over sight of government programs was not a priority. Most of all, there was never consensus to tackle the “big issues”, most of which remain on the table 20 years later.
I respect those who take time from their work and/or families to be in Columbia. But as I’ve become more deeply engaged in local government, where political scientists say “the rubber hits the road”, I see the General Assembly without a rudder and seemingly more interested in interfering with local government issues than taking on the big ones that only they can solve.
Instead of fixing roads and bridges, maintaining state owned roads and storm water systems that fall on local governments without, more often than not, funding to help bare the cost, or fixing out dated ethics rules, or conducting thorough oversight of state agencies running adrift, they seem to want to “mettle” in the day to day business of local government.
Several years ago, the General Assembly denied local governments the right to charge real estate transfer fees to help keep up with the infrastructure needs brought about by growth. However, they continue to collect the state real estate transfer fee on sales of properties in our county and our municipalities with the funds going to the state.
In the more recent past, in the name of “tax reform,” they changed our local school taxes putting an excessive burden on businesses and owners of rental properties or second homes. At the same time, they’ve put an arbitrary cap on municipal and county taxes. This is to say nothing of the tight financial woes of local school districts who are dependent on funding from the state to replace local owner occupied resident taxes that were dropped. Yes, they collect a penny sales tax to make up for the lost revenue, but somehow it is not working.
Furthermore, while they collect dollars from our citizens to be set aside for the Local Government Fund, in recent years they kept close to 30 cents on the dollar to pay their own bills.
There are currently two measures pending before the General Assembly that further tie the hands of local governments. One is about dollars and cents and services to our businesses. The other is about principle and who writes local ordinances to meet the needs of our constituents.
Dollars and Cents
For the past three years now, they have been seeking ways to control local business licenses. At one point, they wanted to cap them. In Beaufort’s case, this would have been a deep cut in revenue from 18-20% and unfair to small businesses that would have been charged the same as large businesses. They seem to have backed off of that, now wanting standardization of business classifications which makes sense and has already been implemented by the City of Beaufort. Yet, a recently introduced measure would cap business licenses for out of town vendors again cutting revenue and discriminating against our local businesses. Perhaps most dangerous is the discussion about local businesses paying their local business license fees to the Secretary of State in Columbia who will then, most likely for a fee because processing takes time and money, who will then send it to us. For a City that has just invested in a system to renew business licenses online, this makes no sense. It’s suggested that it would keep us more accountable. To whom? State Legislators in Columbia? Through the website, the city’s finances are available almost in real time already and we have achieved the top rating of our annual certified annual reporting. We also have achieved the highest possible bond rating available for a city our size. I believe that is accountability enough and we do not need legislators imposing more regulation on us.
Tying the Hands of Local Governments to Pass Local Ordinances
A second proposed infringement on local government is a pending measure which would prevent counties and/or municipalities from outlawing the sale and use of plastic bags. While, to my knowledge, there is no such plan to place this restriction in Beaufort County or our municipalities, other communities have passed them and yet others are considering. However, if the legislature prevents the sale and use of plastic bags, they are again imposing restrictions on the ability to pass laws that protect our citizens many of which are created due to public interest.
The House of Representatives and the Senate met in regular session this week. H3650, the S.C. Business License Tax Standardization Act, was introduced in the House on Thursday. This bill would take away the ability of cities and towns to administer a business license tax and give the authority to a state agency. More to come as information becomes available.
Home Rule - Leave the Responsibilities to Governments that Work
If one reviews opinion research and studies since the early 1970’s one finds that the government closest to the people is the most trusted by the public and enjoys considerably higher levels of respect than state and federal lawmakers. This is because day in and day out we are solving problems that effect people and in general we respond quickly and get results. They rely on us for public safety, garbage and traffic removal, more often than not to maintain drainage and streets (which the state owns and should maintain) and providing clean and safe parks among other services we provide to the our constituents.
There is no reason for state government to interfere.
At this point, it’s a matter of principle.