A glimmer of hope

OK, now that you think — based on my last few posts — that I’m piling on with the bad news about  Mark Sanford, let me throw you a curve. The governor said something the other day that made a very good impression on me, and I hope it will make an impression on some others over at the State House.

Cindi Scoppe’s column today, and this news story, may not make much of any impression on you because unlike me, most people live real lives and don’t sit around thinking about comprehensive tax reform the way my colleagues on the editorial board and I do. (And if so, good for you.) But please go back and read those items before we proceed. Pretend you’re listening to that "waiting for the answer" music from "Jeopardy" while I wait for you to finish reading (the column and the news story, I mean, not the "Jeopardy" link — stay on task, please).

Don’t want to read them? OK, here’s what they’re about: At a Kiwanis Club meeting in Columbia, reported the Associated Press, "Gov. Mark Sanford said Wednesday he thinks lawmakers should study how to fund education in South Carolina before they start to tweak property taxes."

This was astounding news. The governor who is all about cutting taxes, and whose principal interest in education has been in offering tax cuts to people if they will abandon the public schools, was saying Sanford_tax school funding should come before an extremely popular tax cut. And he was saying it to a mostly retired crowd (click on the picture), the very sort of crowd that tends to love to hear about property tax cuts.

And he’s RIGHT! He’s absolutely right! This is what public school advocates have been saying for years — particularly those of us who care about the biggest problem with public education in our state: the gross inequity in funding between affluent suburban school districts and their poor, rural counterparts. (More specifically, and comprehensively, what we have been saying on the editorial page is that the governor and the Legislature should look at ALL state needs — schools, roads, public safety, the whole shebang — then figure out what it would cost to address them adequately, and build a fair, sensible tax system that pays for it all. In other words, when we talk about "comprehensive tax reform," we are simultaneously talking about comprehensive spending reform.)

"If you want relief," the governor said, "then how are we going to do it in a way that still provides adequate funding for the education process?" He even mentioned the equity issue!

Another interesting thing about this story is that the lawmakers the AP contacted for reaction — some of the very ones who have been a voice of reason, putting the brakes on Mr. Sanford’s tuition tax credits and broad income tax cuts — came across as thoughtless "let’s cut taxes because it’s popular, and who cares if the state falls apart in the meantime" types.

I don’t want to pin too much on this one account of a speech. I wasn’t there, and I need to dig into this a bit before I get too excited. Mr. Sanford has expressed concern about education equity in the past, only to turn around and, absurdly, offer his tuition tax credit as the solution. (A reminder for the reality-challenged: Poor, rural families would be the last people in the state to benefit from the tuition tax credit. Why? Because they don’t pay enough income tax to qualify for the tax cut, and because even if they DID qualify for the refund, they can’t afford to come up with the tuition on the front end, and in any case there are no private schools nearby that would enroll their kids.)

But with lawmakers mindlessly determined to cut one tax in a vacuum yet again (a tax they don’t even collect, by the way; a huge part of this is lawmakers loving to meddle in local government affairs, where they don’t have to clean up the mess they create), any spark of hope that somebody out there is actually thinking about how all these issues are connected is worth fanning into a flame, if at all possible.

3 thoughts on “A glimmer of hope

  1. d'oh

    You can call me reality-challenged if you’d like, but I actually read the school choice legislation.
    It did in fact have a provision to help poor folks. It contained a massive scholarship program, funded by corporations in lieu of part of their income tax liability. The scholarship provision was so generous that you complained about it. Repeatedly.
    Then, of course, there’s the fact that the credit extended to anyone in the family who could pay.
    So there were two avenues to help poor people with insufficient tax liability. Your rationale for opposing tuition tax credits–AKA choices for poor and rich alike–is either patently disingenuous or woefully under-informed.

  2. Brad Warthen

    You’re right, we did complain about it. Repeatedly. So you can’t exactly say we’ve overlooked it.
    That part of the bill is a non-starter — including among some influential Republican lawmakers who might otherwise be inclined to go with the whole “choice” concept. It’s highly unlikely that any form of this legislation that DID pass would contain the SGOs, and a good thing, too. They could blow a huge hole in a state budget that is already failing to fund adequately such basics as law enforcement, prisons and the most elementary mental health safety net. Further, it would be such an attractive tax dodge that it would likely decimate legitimate charitable giving — say you’re a business, and you have a choice between a tax EXEMPTION for giving to United Way and a tax CREDIT for setting up your own private school and giving your employees free tuition as a recruiting tool; which would you be more likely to pick?
    For all those reasons, I dismiss the SGOs as a fig leaf, a chimera that takes up a huge portion of the bill to make it LOOK like the poor would be helped.


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