You know that press conference that they had at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce Thursday to support the sales tax referendum for transportation Thursday? I was there, and not as a blogger. I mean, I’m always a blogger — here I am writing about it — but that’s not why I was there.
I was there to support the referendum. Ike McLeese and Betty Gregory with the Chamber had asked a group of supporters (and I had told them I was willing to help) to show up so that the media people could see a nice cross-section of the community willing to stand up for it.
This would not be a big deal for most people, but it is for me. I’ve always been a professional observer, which is to say, I’ve always been on the sidelines. Sure, I’ve been telling people in writing where I stand on issues off and on since the early ’70s, when I was the editorial page editor of The Helmsman, the student newspaper at Memphis State. And ever since I joined The State‘s editorial board in ’94, I’ve not only written what I thought about all and sundry, but I’ve also always been clear about my views when I speak to groups in the community. In fact, since we were SO strongly against the state lottery, and we were so committed to using any venue we could in trying (against all odds) to defeat it, I actually argued against it in some public debates in the months leading up to the referendum. My good friend Samuel Tenenbaum and I had a regular road show going — he would be “pro” and I would be “anti.” I had right on my side, but of course his side won.
But this is different. I have agreed, in writing, to be a public supporter of an issue before voters on the November ballot.
Why have I taken this stand? Well, I’ll tell ya…
In some ways, it’s an unlikely place to start being involved. If I’d tried to predict it, I would have said I’d save myself for something big, and statewide — say, helping Vincent Sheheen get elected. As y’all know, I have held for many years that THE most important electoral decision voters make every four years is choosing a governor. With our state being so dominated by the Legislature, and the Legislature by nature being extremely resistant to change, the only way our state is ever going to stop being last where we want to be first and first where we want to last is for someone elected statewide to use the bully pulpit (which is about the only tool the governor has) to exert a counterbalancing force for reform and progress. And it is especially critical that Sheheen be elected rather than the Sanford disciple he’s up against. But beyond what I write here, I’m not doing anything to help him. (Disclosure: ADCO Interactive did the new Sheheen Web site, but I was not and am not involved with that project.)
But I got involved with this instead. Here are some reasons why:
- I believe public transit is essential for our community to grow and prosper (as J.T. McLawhorn said at the meeting, public transit is a vital part of a community’s circulatory system, and without that, “You’re dead.”), and next year the bus system — a rather poor, lame excuse for public transportation, but it’s all we’ve got — runs out of money.
- Every other venue for keeping it going has been thoroughly explored. And I think you will notice that those opposing this referendum don’t present a viable alternative. A community group spent vast amounts of volunteer time two years ago studying all of Richland County’s transportation needs. $500,000 worth of studies were done. This was the only viable way to do it, given the straitjacket that the Legislature puts communities in when it comes to taxing and spending. Ask Columbia College President Caroline Whitson, who chaired that effort: This is the way to do it. The unpopular temporary wheel tax that’s keeping it going now is not a workable permanent solution.
- That revenue would also pay for a number of other needed improvements to transportation infrastructure — bike and hiking trails, and road improvements — that were identified through that same wide-ranging community conversation two years back. This answers those who say “I don’t ride the bus” (as if taxes were a user fee, but let’s not go down that philosophical rathole right now). This plan has something for everyone in the county. And it’s not a wish list; there is considerable community support behind each of these projects.
- Funding from other sources for the road projects is not any more forthcoming — from state or federal sources, or anywhere else — than is funding for the bus system. This is truly a case in which a community has come together to determine it’s needs, and identified a sensible way to pay for it without asking for a handout — a handout that, as I say, isn’t coming. This is something Richland County needs to do for itself, and this is the best way available to do it.
- It’s a fair way to pay for this. Some may protest that I don’t live in the county, so who am I to speak out? My answer to that is that THIS is the way to get people like me — who spend almost all our waking hours in Richland County, and benefit from its roads and other services — to pay our share. I’m more than willing to do it. Richland County residents who pay property taxes should be twice as willing, even eager.
- Like many of you, I’m concerned about putting too much stress on the sales tax. Nikki Haley and the other lawmakers who wrongheadedly supported Act 388, and adamantly refuse to repeal it, badly distorted our already fouled-up tax system. They eliminated school operations taxes on owner-occupied homes by raising the sales tax by a penny. They did this on top of the fact that they had forced local communities to turn to a local option sales tax by proscribing or restricting other revenue sources. Because of all that, this is the only option local communities have for such needs as this. And of course, it also has the virtue I mentioned above. A magnet county like Richland, drawing people from all over central South Carolina, should rely more on a sales tax than other counties.
- This method has been used with great success in other communities across the state — Charleston, Florence and York counties have benefited greatly. For a lot of the business leaders who are lining up behind this, watching those communities improve their infrastructure and get a leg up in economic development while we continue to fall behind is a huge motivation factor in supporting this.
There are other reasons that aren’t coming to me at the moment as I type this, which I will no doubt write about in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you might want to peruse this summary of the proposal.
The folks who turned out for the kickoff Thursday were a pretty good group. As I stood in the crowd listening to the speakers, I could see from where I was standing: Ted Speth (the first speaker), Steve Benjamin, Joel & Kit Smith, Barbara Rackes, Samuel Tenenbaum, Rick Silver, Emily Brady, Col. Angelo Perri, Cathy Novinger, Bernice Scott, Jennifer Harding, Chuck Beamon, J.T. McLawhorn, Candy Waites, Paul Livingston, Greg Pearce, Lee Bussell, Sonny White and Mac Bennett.
Here’s a longer list of folks who pledged ahead of the kickoff to support the campaign. But I know it’s not complete, because my name isn’t on it.
More about this as we go along. This campaign has just begun.