The State decides it, too, is 55 percent for the sales tax referendum

A couple of days ago, I was talking with a good friend — a very conservative Republican leader, a longtime close ally of Mark Sanford — about politics and mentioned the proposed penny sales tax increase for transportation in Richland County. He said, derisively (but in a friendly way), something along the lines of, “And you just think that would be GREAT, don’t you?”

Well, no. As I explained to him, I’m probably about 45 percent against it. But I’m more than 50 percent for it, when all is weighed and measured. So I’ve gone out of my way to help support the effort to pass it — now that I’m not a newspaper editor any more, and am in more of a position to stand up for things I believe in instead of just writing about them.

But I know that I SEEM like a pro-tax guy to someone who is strongly anti-tax and has powerful feelings on the subject. The thing is, I’m about as neutral as a guy can get on taxes. I look at a particular tax in a particular situation, and I look for logical reasons to take a particular position on it — raise it, lower it, eliminate it, place or remove restrictions on it, whatever.

At no point does any sort of personal FEELING about taxes enter into it. I guess because I never really feel personally put-upon, but look at it from 30,000 feet in terms of whether it makes sense as policy. (In fact, one reason I like this tax is that I, as a Lexington Countian who doesn’t pay Richland County property taxes but spends most of my waking ours in Columbia, taking advantage of the amenities here, would have to pay my share of it. That’s fair.) Sometimes I decide a tax proposal doesn’t make good policy sense. Sometimes I decide it does. The penny sales tax on Tuesday’s ballot in Richland County is one case that, when you balance all the pros and cons, makes sense under the circumstances.

My primary concern here is making sure we have a transportation system for folks who can’t afford to own a car (which is sort of the definition of poverty in this country). I don’t like that the mechanism is a sales tax (except for the part about people like me, from outside the county, paying it), but until someone waves a magic wand or does a brain transplant on the Legislature (just don’t use the one from that “Abby Normal” guy!), we are going to have an overburdened sales tax.

You know why that is? It’s because of some of the ANTI-tax people. In this state, anti-tax sentiment has tended to center on property taxes and to some extent the income tax. So basically we’ve pushed down on those (especially the property tax, and most especially the tax on owner-occupied homes), creating upward pressure on sales taxes.

Which is just fine with certain elements of the anti-tax movement in SC, because there’s a line of thought followed by a lot (although certainly not all) of its adherents: “Government is a thing that is hostile to people like me (white, middle-class people). Government exists to do one thing: take money away from people like me, and give it to undeserving people (usually black, poor people), either through direct payments (welfare as we knew it) or services for THEM and not for ME. A property tax is unfair because it penalizes me for working hard and sacrificing to buy a home. A sales tax is fair because THOSE PEOPLE have to pay it, too (never mind that the taxes on rental property are higher and are passed on as part of rent).”

So you end up with essential services, from school operations to transportation infrastructure, being paid for by the overburdened and unstable sales tax.

That’s not good, for a host of reasons. But that’s the way things are, and that is the reality that Richland County has to deal with. This is the option it has.

As you know, I continue to advocate strongly for comprehensive tax reform. This state badly needs to get on a sounder, fairer, better-balanced fiscal footing. (One of the great ironies of politics in SC is that we’ve now gotten to where EVERYBODY, including Vincent Sheheen and Nikki Haley, are for comprehensive tax reform — but we still haven’t gotten it.) But I understand that Richland County does not have the power to make that happen, and has to deal with the situation before it.

And this sales tax is a sound, practical way to get the job done.

But I know all the arguments against it. And BECAUSE I know all those arguments, and I know my former colleagues at The State, I did not expect the paper to endorse the referendum.

It was looking like the paper wouldn’t endorse either way — with only Cindi and Warren left writing for the page, the number of endorsements overall have been curtailed dramatically — but it if did, it might be against. I had read Warren’s columns setting out the arguments for AND against, and figured that would be that. And I knew Cindi — her inclinations would set her against it. (She, even more than I, has had a “no tax increases until comprehensive tax reform” attitude that colors such decisions.)

But Friday, I was pleased to see the paper DID take the plunge on an issue it was truly torn over. And it ended up where I did — not crazy about it, but ultimately for it.

Here’s an excerpt from the endorsement, “Say ‘yes’ to transportation sales tax:”

We have multiple concerns about the plan on Tuesday’s ballot: The volatile sales tax already is being relied on too heavily — in our community and across the state. It’s already 9 cents on some items in Richland County. It’s difficult to swallow raising it even more in this down economy. Moreover, most of the billion-plus dollars the tax would raise won’t be used to fund our primary need — the bus system; two-thirds would be spent on road improvements and building sidewalks, bike paths and greenways.

Despite these concerns, we have reluctantly concluded that on balance it is in the best interest of this community, its quality of life and its economy. We believe voters should approve the sales tax, and also allow the county to borrow $200 million, which would be repaid using the tax, in order to get work started as soon as possible.

One appealing aspect of this plan is that people from outside the county would pay a projected 40 percent of the tax. But two things in particular tipped the balance for us. The first is the overriding need for a vibrant bus system to serve those whose lives and livelihoods depend on it, support the economy and provide a transportation option that helps reduce congestion, pollution and gas use.

The second is the broad support the plan has received. Thirty-nine well-respected citizens, including Columbia College President Caroline Whitson and Columbia Urban League President J.T. McLawhorn, sat on the commission whose study formed the basis of this proposal; many have been vocal in their support of the increase. In addition, a number of influential business people have galvanized behind this effort. These include some of this community’s more conservative leaders…

By the way, I had accompanied a delegation of referendum supporters — J.T. McLawhorn, Ted Speth and several others — when they went and made their pitch to the editorial board. That was a personal milestone, the very first time I’ve been in that room since leaving the paper, and my first time ever on that side of the equation. The full board was there (Cindi, Warren, Mark Lett and Henry Haitz). One of my fellow guests asked me, “Was Obama in this room?” I said yes, in the seat being occupied by Lee Bussell (another member of our delegation). John McCain had sat there, too, more than once. And Joe Biden, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman. George W. Bush. Ted Sorensen. Plenty of others had been in the room, but not in that particular chair like those. Lots of memories.

I didn’t say much. And the board didn’t ask many questions. I really didn’t feel it had gone that well, since I had reason to believe the odds were against us, and the meeting just didn’t feel (based on my long experience) like a game-changer. But then, I had never been in that position.

Afterward, Cindi and Warren gave me a tour of their new digs. They’ve moved out of our top-floor suite of offices (editorial is no longer a separate division reporting to the publisher, but under news chief Mark Lett) and are now in the part of the newsroom that used to be the morgue — library, I suppose I should say (“morgue” is a term that dates to the old days in newspapers, before that building was built). They’ve turned the area into offices, plus a little conference room, by making walls out of tall bookcases and cabinets. It’s nicer than I thought it would be.

Anyway, they didn’t say anything to indicate how they thought the meeting had gone. Until Friday, I had thought they had decided not to take a stand on it either way. (And in fact, I worried that the board meeting might have pushed them to take a stand, and the stand would be against. It was that much of a near thing.) So the Friday endorsement was a nice, welcome surprise.

Like me, my former colleagues don’t consider the plan one to jump for joy over. But all things considered, the right answer is “yes.”

23 thoughts on “The State decides it, too, is 55 percent for the sales tax referendum

  1. Ralph Hightower

    I would be all for the “transportation sales tax” to fund bus service and road improvements, IF and ONLY IF (iff), Richland County and Columbia dumped their “prepared food tax”, i.e., restaurant tax

    I know that Columbia needs a bus service for those that don’t own cars to get to work, shop, and get medical care

    But Columbia and Richland County realize they have a captive group that work and eat in Columbia and Richland County and they are milking us for all they can.

    With the passage of Act 388, which Vincent Sheheen opposed and Nikki Haley supported, we buy mostly from Lexington County. Why should we buy groceries in Richland County when we can shop in Lexington County and boost our property tax reduction?

  2. Doug Ross

    When is The State going to come out in favor of removing the sales tax exemption it gets on the sale of newspapers? That money could be spent on buses. Oh, but wait, that would cause THEM pain instead of shifting the pain to everyone else – including the mythical 40% of non-residents.

  3. Mark Stewart

    I don’t mean this as a backhanded compliment, but this is one of you more interesting posts. Lots of different stuff to think about…

  4. Karen McLeod

    It’s not just for those who can’t afford a car; it’s also for those who can’t drive a car. That includes a lot of physically disabled, vets who have PTSD so badly that they can’t deal with driving a car, and elderly who can no longer drive. As for the poor: they have to be able to get to jobs. I agree that there are better ways to fund public transportation; I also agree that until our representatives get their collective “head” together, that this is a basic service that we need to provide.

  5. Doug Ross

    “Government exists to do one thing: take money away from people like me, and give it to undeserving people (usually black, poor people)”

    Why does everything come down to race with your views on how people think?

    Opposed to illegal immigration? It’s because the illegals are brown.

    Opposed to high taxes? It’s because the money is going to black people.

    How would your theory work for states like New Hampshire and Utah which are very anti-tax yet there is no significant black population? It couldn’t just be that some people feel government is inefficient and creating an environment that makes people dependent on the government is against basic principles of self reliance and hard work?

    No, it’s gotta be racial.

  6. Maude Lebowski

    Brad have you written about your version or take on comprehensive tax reform? If so could you link me to it? Thanks.

  7. bud

    Brad, do you or don’t you support repeal of the hospitality tax? If you want to keep it then you are a 100% pro-tax guy. Worst damn tax ever! A yes or no answer is the ONLY answer to that question. None of this long-winded nonsense about the pros and cons. Just say. Until you can answer that simple question you have no business saying you’re tax neutral. None. Nada. Zip. Zero.

  8. Brad

    Golly, bud, thanks for setting such a fair, temperate, calm standard…

    You’ve mentioned the hospitality tax a couple of times, and each time I’ve tried to remember what I’ve said about it in the past, if anything. I seem to recall being against the way it is USED. I know I’ve been concerned about the additional pressure on the sales tax. But I’m sorry, but a simplistic “yes” or “no” answer to “hospitality tax — for it or against it” is not possible.

    Do I wish that the unpopular hospitality tax weren’t there as an excuse for people not to vote for the transportation penny? Yes. Do I think it has at times been misspent? Yes. Do I wish the overall sales tax burden in Richland County were smaller? Yes. Do I wish that a portion of the hospitality tax could be diverted to pay for the buses (which the Legislature won’t allow)? Yes. Do I wish the Legislature would get its big, fat boot off the necks of local governments so they can figure out equitable ways to pay for services themselves? Yes.

  9. Brad

    Maude, I’ll see what I can find. I’ve probably pushed for comprehensive tax reform more than for anything else, but it was mostly on the pages of The State, in editorials and such, and the paper doesn’t keep that stuff online going very far back. (Much to my irritation.)

    Let me get some time to post something on the blog (I haven’t had time all day, and now I’m running into another meeting). If I can’t find any good links, I’ll just write something summarizing my various thoughts on the subject.

    But the simple version? We should start from scratch. Pretend we don’t have a state government. Figure out what a new state government should do, figure out what that would cost, and come up with a fair, equitable and stable way of paying for it. But, you say, don’t lawmakers do that every year? No, they don’t…

  10. Brad

    Doug, I really hate to burst your bubble here, but yes, race is very, very often an element in political attitudes in South Carolina.

    Not THE factor, so don’t exaggerate what I said. I listed it as one of the factors in how the majority defines “otherness” in our state, which in turn is a factor in almost every fundamental political assumption in our state, and one of the main things that holds us back.

    And yeah, if those immigrants spoke English and looked like they were from Germany or Ireland, we wouldn’t be hearing the outrage, because the outraged people wouldn’t notice them. Again, we have that “otherness” factor involved.

  11. Doug Ross

    We notice the illegal immigrants because of what they do, not who they are. They commit a crime to enter the country, commit crimes to remain in the country, and commit crimes when they drive cars, avoid paying some taxes, etc. They utilize resources that should be going to legal residents. That’s the issue. Doesn’t matter if the illegal is named Sean O’Callahan or Juan Santos.

  12. Brad


    Doug, the number of people who cared passionately about this issue would be roughly equivalent to the number of people who care passionately about Klingon grammar, if these illegals looked and sounded like you and me.

  13. Maude Lebowski

    Brad I know I’ve expressed my disagreement with you on why Americans care about illegal immigration but I feel obligated to do so once again since you said “the number of people who cared passionately about this issue would be roughly equivalent to the number of people who care passionately about Klingon grammar, if these illegals looked and sounded like you and me.”

    It is NOT the brown skin and Spanish accent that makes me believe that immigration reform is important (I actually have a thing for swarthy men with foreign accents)but as Doug said “They utilize resources that should be going to legal residents.” So yeah, if the majority of illegals were blond Anglos who were fluent in English I’d still want immigration reform if they were straining our resources.

  14. Mark Stewart

    Resources? Personally, I find illegals to be the hardest working people I have ever encountered; almost without exception.

    It’s always sad to see individuals vilified. What if we thought of them in Darwinian terms? That would be more consistent with our longstanding national narrative.

  15. bud

    This is about the clearest illustration of why something as dreadful as the Tea Party exists. Folks like Brad just flat out don’t get it. Brad is smart, well versed on the issues. But he has zero understanding of what frustrates people about taxes. Like the Grinch I’ve puzzled my puzzler to try and understand why this is so hard for Brad to grasp but I come up empty. The bus tax is probably going to fail. I understand clearly why that is. But a week from now we’ll see Brad writing something like: “The voters of Richland County just don’t get it. Why did they vote against this much needed tax”. And I’ll just shake my ahead and smile in amazement.

  16. Mark Stewart


    I couldn’t believe that so many would vote for something that only superficially looked like it would benefit them – the state’s last foray into tax reform in 388. Actually it hurt nearly everyone and within only a few short years. Most just don’t seem to know it yet.

    I’m not for or against individual taxes; I am, however, for comprehensive tax reform that equitably and rationally distributes the tax burden across the full spectrum of our society. Then we can focus on holding the line on tax growth.

    Simply worrying about one’s own wallet to the exclusion of everything else is the surest way to stagnate our state’s entire economy; and thereby economically punish all citizens.

    The more economic wealth a state can generate the better. Focusing just on tax reductions is like flushing ourselves down the drain in an endless unrecoverable cycle of nonsense.

  17. Kathryn Braun Fenner (Mrs. Stephen A.)

    I like you, Mark! I hope you will consider running for something I can vote for you for. Given that Doug Ross said the same thing, you are a uniter, not a divider!

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