State House needs to get real
about local government — and taxes
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
A MEMBER of my Rotary club last week asked new House Speaker Bobby Harrell a question about property taxes.
Unfortunately, in answering the question, he did not say anything that sounded like "comprehensive tax reform."
This is worrisome, because after a buildup of two or three years in which it has looked constantly as though lawmakers were on the verge of getting serious about tackling the entire problem of how we fund essential services in this state, I’m starting to hear a lot of talk that sounds disturbingly like we’re in for another populist, Band-Aid round of property tax cutting without regard for anything else. (See above editorial.)
Take, for instance, what Mr. Harrell’s Senate counterpart had to say on our July 17 op-ed page.
This column, by the way, will make more sense if you read that column, from Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell. For stark contrast, also check out the July 26 piece by the Municipal Association‘s Howard Duvall.
Mr. McConnell’s piece is remarkable for its lack of grounding in reality; Mr. Duvall’s for the precise opposite.
In case you don’t have access to the Web at the moment, let me offer a few excerpts from Mr. McConnell’s piece, with a little commentary of my own:
"As long as we have property taxes, we are in effect paying rent to the government for the use of our property…." No, we’re not. What we are doing is paying our fair share for services that benefit us enormously as property owners. Those of us who own property are ultimately the greatest beneficiaries of services that make our communities worth living in: police and fire protection, libraries and, yes, public schools.
"Local governments can charge us as much as they want and feed their need to spend our money like they have a blank check." Local governments are run by officials who are elected with just as much legitimacy as Mr. McConnell, and who are caught between their mandate to provide everyday, essential services in their communities; state and federal mandates that they do certain things whether they want to or not; and the state Legislature’s never-ending efforts to prevent them from paying what it costs to do these things. If legislators, in their callous disregard , force local governments to raise property taxes beyond what voters find tolerable, it is the local officials who get voted out of office.
"Their (local governments’) presumption for reform has always been more sources of revenue but fewer and fewer restriction on how and how much they can spend." Well, duh. When costs are increasing, and everybody’s beating you up over the property tax, of course you’re going to seek other sources of revenue. And where in the world do state legislators get off placing restrictions on how local council members spend the revenues that they take full responsibility (and the political risk) for raising? Here’s how this works: When lawmakers passed a bill spelling out how local governments could charge impact fees for new residential development, they forbade the locals to spend the money on the one greatest cost such development generates — public schools. So the locals have to go back to the property tax, and they — not the guilty parties up in the State House — get strung up at the polls for it.
"Reform must be fair and, at the very least, must not produce a net increase for government in collected taxes." Oh, no. We wouldn’t want to provide rural kids with the same quality education that city kids get, or put enough troopers on the road, or make our prisons secure, or get the mentally ill out of jails and emergency rooms, or any of those other frills we can’t seem to afford with the present tax structure.
"I hope that then the voices of the people from the mountains to the coast can drown out those of the paid lobbyists." Translation: I hope that rising dissatisfaction with the problem the Legislature created gives me the political license I need to utterly ignore the realistic counsel of the governments closest to the people.
Local governments deal with the public at the most intimate level, where basic services are provided. They know what the public really wants from government because the public lets them know immediately when they’re failing to provide it. And they know what it costs, and they know what it’s like to be caught between the people they live among and the ideologues in Columbia who keep trying to make their jobs harder.
I finally understand why Mark Sanford is the first governor I’ve seen Sen. McConnell get along with: Both are passionately, pedantically libertarian. And neither of them allows the reality of what happens at the business end of government — where essential services are provided to real people — interfere with them as they sit in the State House and endlessly spin their anti-government theories.
Both of them starkly displayed this disconnect on the seat belt issue. But it matters so much more when the governor maligns public schools, or the senator trashes local government, with no regard for what’s actually happening out here in the world.
State House needs to get real