Pro-referendum group about to launch

This morning, I attended a meeting over at the Greater Columbia Chamber of the group campaigning for the referendum to fund local buses and other transportation needs.

That is to say, the group preparing to campaign for the referendum. The official launch is next Wednesday. The website just went live, with additional content to come, and the Twitter feed is just getting started — I was only the seventh follower.

But of course, the effort goes back quite a ways. At the  meeting I was sitting next to former Columbia College President (and local F.O.B.Caroline Whitson, who led the initial communitywide effort — more than six years ago now — to identify, and push for funding for, local transportation priorities.

That effort would have likely led to passage of the one-cent sales tax increase in 2008, except that it failed to get on the ballot for lack of a vote on Richland County Council (I want to say it was because Kit Smith was out of town, but it’s been awhile, so I forget the exact details). Instead, it went on the ballot in 2010, the most anti-government, anti-tax election year in my memory — and fell less than a percentage point short.

Backers, among whom you can continue to count me, are optimistic that this is the year. I think there are a number of reasons to think so, in spite of the continued vehemence of the opposition.

I’ll have more on the subject as the effort launches.

58 thoughts on “Pro-referendum group about to launch

  1. Brad

    Yep. Because that is just what it is, a penny on the dollar. It is by far the quickest, clearest way to identify the issue.

    And if I live to be a thousand years old, I will never, ever understand why the word “penny” makes you antitax people go so ballistic. It’s not logical. There’s nothing to object to.

    Your objection SEEMS to be based in an assumption that advocates assume that voters are SO STUPID that they will think that all they pay for this is one penny, total, over the course of 22 years. But that is absolutely inconceivable to me, that ANYONE could think that.

    And if what you’re objecting to is simply that a penny doesn’t sound like much, then what you’re reacting to is the reality of the situation. Because paying one penny on the dollar to get a decent bus system and have local road priorities paid for is indeed a ridiculously low amount for the people of Richland County AND us outsiders who spend our days and make out living in the county, to pay.

  2. bud

    A penny here and penny there, before long it adds up to some real money. Why not cut it in half and just fund the buses. Not sure all the other stuff is really necessary. Better yet trade the inhospitality tax for it.

  3. Brad

    Of course, what Dirksen actually said was, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”

    Which of course, WAS real money, especially back when he said it.

    Of course, he was using hyberbole for ironic effect. But it certainly WAS real money…

  4. Brad

    … and, over the course of 22 years, the pennies WILL add up to real money. Which is why it’s worth doing. The pain is ridiculously minimal, and we get so much benefit from it.

    And, just to answer you more specifically, it is not legally possible to use the hospitality tax for this. Just can’t do it.

    I don’t like adding to the sales tax any more than Cindi Scoppe does. No one (except maybe Cindi) has pushed harder over the years for comprehensive tax reform, which would necessarily lower the burden put on that leg of the stool.

    But it’s also a fairer way to pay for something like this, since those of us who don’t pay Richland County property taxes also will benefit from it.

    If this were Pennsylvania, the city of Columbia could levy an income tax on those of us who live across the river and work here. Not possible here. The local leaders are working with the limited, imperfect tools that the Legislature allows.

    Waiting for South Carolina to change before you get anything done locally is a losing proposition, for everyone.

  5. Doug Ross

    “And, just to answer you more specifically, it is not legally possible to use the hospitality tax for this. Just can’t do it.”

    Baloney. Any law can be changed. And a whole lot easier than passing a new tax increase. The legislature just doesn’t want to give up that slush fund.

  6. Steven Davis II

    “And if I live to be a thousand years old, I will never, ever understand why the word “penny” makes you antitax people go so ballistic.”

    It’s because interest group after interest group says “it’s only a penny”. If they all got their way we’d be paying 25% sales tax in Richland County.

    And as Doug says, it benefits “few”. It’d be cheaper to give the bus riders cab fare than to maintain bus system that typically has less less than five people on it at anytime.

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    I hope we get all the bike lanes and trails….we are so behind other cities even in the South in this regard. The knowledge workers want bike lanes and trails. It’s an investment.

  8. Kathryn Fenner

    You have to get to a tipping point on a transit system. Pennies, nickels and dimes might not get us there. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all cared enough about the poor, the young and the old to make sure they could get around?

  9. Doug Ross

    ” The knowledge workers want bike lanes and trails. ”

    Sorry, I don’t believe in the “Field of Dreams” approach to business development. “If you build it, they will come”. That’s how we got Innovista.

    There are even fewer people who would bike to work than ride the bus. Who in their right mind would ride a bike in Columbia any time between May and October when it is 90 degrees or hotter?

  10. Doug Ross


    There you go with the other old standby aside from “it’s just a penny”. If you are against a bus tax, apparently you don’t care about the poor, the young, and the old.

    We’ve already offered an alternative – change the hospitality tax law. Or do you care more about billboards and renovating historic homes than people? How cruel!

    It’s always easier to go for a tax hike than to prioritize the tax dollars you already have.

  11. Doug Ross


    What is ADCO’s role in the referendum? Is ADCO providing either paid or unpaid services to the group?

  12. Brad

    And tell you what, Doug — you run along and get state tax law changed. I’m going to go ahead and address these transportation needs in the meantime.

    I’ve already beaten my head against that wall, trying to inject some rationality to the tax system in this state, for more than 20 years. I’m happy for you to take a turn.

  13. Doug Ross

    Who with any clout has tried to change the hospitality tax law? What was the response from the legislature?

    Other viable options:

    1) Remove the sales tax limit on cars, boats, etc.
    2) Increase the property tax on cars, boats, etc.
    3) Eliminate sales tax exemptions on certain products (like newspapers)
    4) Eliminate the stupid 85 years or older 1% tax break
    5) Eliminate “school” tax holidays. Another dumb idea.

    There are plenty of alternatives that would not require a referendum. All of them would be easier to implement – you change a few lines in the tax code.

    These special directed penny taxes are just an easy out for politicians to avoid making tough decisions.

  14. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    A knowledge worker works in the highly desirable knowledge economy. These industries are close to zero polluting, have high-paying jobs and are growing. They include all sorts of information technology activities, but also any number of other highly skilled jobs involving, uh, knowledge. It’s a big deal that anyone even slightly interested in economic development would be aware of.

  15. tavis micklash

    “And as Doug says, it benefits “few”. It’d be cheaper to give the bus riders cab fare than to maintain bus system that typically has less less than five people on it at anytime.”

    Thats just not true. Val Hutchinson had a good comment on this. She basically said that everyone in Richland county is going to be paying the tax so everyone needs to get a benefit from it.

    The vast majority of the penny will go to roads.

    You can make a good argument that they should have trimmed down the penny to a more manageable amount but its unfair to say only bus riders are going to see something from this.

    “Backers, among whom you can continue to count me, are optimistic that this is the year. I think there are a number of reasons to think so, in spite of the continued vehemence of the opposition.”

    I was a very vocal anti tax guy. I probably did 15 articles on it. My opinion has softened somewhat.

    The fluff is minimal.

    I think Kelvin Washington shoehorning in 35 million more for dirt road paving was BS but overall its a minimal amount. I also think a 3% admin fee is high.

    I think council actually had it right cutting back the bus funding. The manager said that they would make up the few % difference with federal match funds on the short end. If a quasi government guy says we don’t need the money don’t give him more. This was totally to appease the pro bus crowd and not the taxpayer. Its a give and take though.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think this will pass despite the bungled planning of the referendum. The reason the tax looks almost identical to the 2010 is because it very much is. Councilman Pearce even said it at the work session. They waited so late to commission the study update that the final numbers weren’t even in till the VERY LAST MEETING. The committee couldn’t make any real analysis so they just did their best and trimmed of 5 years (which council later cut back to 3).

    Here is how (shockingly) Richland can maybe get my vote.

    A REAL watchdog group controlling money. Don’t just make it majority of councilman. They can bully the rest around. I’d really like to see Don Weaver, Micheal Letts or Malinowski on the committee. Pro taxpayer voices will help ensure that the money doesn’t get funneled away.

  16. Doug Ross


    But those jobs aren’t going to come to Columbia whether we have bike paths or not. They will come here if we have a pool of talented people AND a set of tax laws and business regulations that provides the best opportunity/highest profitability.

    The bike paths (if they really matter) will come BECAUSE the knowledge workers are here not the reverse.

  17. Mark Stewart

    Doug and Kathryn,

    You are both right. Everyone needs to face the fact that Columbia is a beer-goggle city.

    It’s one step forward, one back too often (like the Zoning Board allowing the digital bill board to remain at Gervais and Assembly – swell move, guys). But a lot of people ARE trying to improve our livability. That should be supported. Sidewalks and bike lanes aren’t crazy wastes – depending on where they are located.

    Still, the single biggest bang for the buck in the Midlands would be to turn the entire riverfront(s) into a connected parkway. Sadly, it remains an old song. Here’s hoping that everyone on both sides of the river will play nice this time (SCDOT as well) and throw up some cool pedestrian bridges across the rivers.

  18. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    Columbia, Cayce and West Columbia have come a long way already with respect to making the riverfronts jewels, and are continuing on, despite hard times. I walked on the Cayce/West Columbia side today, and saw people of all ages, colors and apparent socio-economic levels enjoying the path.

  19. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn, as someone with a degree in Economics and working in a sr. management position in the IT industry, I guess you learn something new everyday. Because I’ve never heard those jobs called that. “knowledge economy”???

    Brad, you’re going to be dead and buried for a long time before Columbia, SC becomes anything close to London.

    The riverfront in Columbia is a “jewel”? Isn’t the spots your talking about across the river from the guys keep getting arrested for trolling for boyfriends park on the Columbia side?

  20. Steven Davis II

    If you were a start up company where would you locate if you were to want to come to the South? Columbia, SC where they have nothing but ideas about a research triangle, or the Research Triangle in North Carolina where you have a proven endless supply of potential employees? Anyone who is familiar with the Innovista knows that it’s going to end up as USC property.

  21. Brad

    Actually, if you Google it as a phrase, within quotes, you only get 3.36 million. But yes, a very common and widely understood phrase.

  22. Doug Ross


    Exactly. There were no bike paths or greenways or pedestrian bridges n the RTP area when it started.

    What there was was a huge amount of land bisected by a major highway and surrounded by three leading universities.

    If you want a knowledge economy in this area, you should be looking at Blythewood/north or southeast of Columbia on I26. What company would attempt to build in the downtown area? What benefit would there be over having plenty of space, a safe distance from the bad sections of downtown, much less traffic?

    Even if a company wanted a downtown location, downtown Greenville is far more attractive than Columbia. We drove through there on a Saturday night after attending a baseball game at their downtown park. Main Street was crowded with people from end to end and it bore no resemblance to downtown Columbia on a Saturday night.

  23. Brad

    Main Street Greenville is a well-known triumph, which Columbia would very much like to emulate.

    But there’s nowhere to put anything like the Innovista there. There’s no underdeveloped riverfront immediately adjacent to the campus of a research university. Those are the reasons why you’d locate in the Vista area rather than Greenville. As for Blythewood… I could see a manufacturing facility there, but if it’s small and research-oriented, adjacent to the USC campus would be a better location.

    There are plenty of highly educated young people who would rather live and work downtown as urban pioneers, rather than further suburban sprawl out in the countryside.

    Not that I’m one of them, mind you. I’m out in the burbs, and have no interest in living in an apartment or condo. But not everyone is me.

  24. Doug Ross

    “There are plenty of highly educated young people who would rather live and work downtown as urban pioneers,”

    Not in Columbia.

    Have you ever seen the old PMSC campus in Blythewood? That’s what companies in the RTP area look like. RTP companies are 10-15 miles away from any of the universities. They seem to be doing just fine. Downtown Raleigh is very similar to Columbia from what I recall. They roll up the sidewalks at night.

  25. Brad

    Well, that’s not what I see every day in the Vista. That Publix, for instance, is crammed with young adults pretty much every time I go there. Ditto with the Starbucks, and the restaurants up and down Gervais and Lady Streets.

  26. Mark Stewart

    I don’t think anyone is trying to emulate the RTP.

    The point is to capitalize on existing social and physical infrastructure, not to start from scratch.

    Anyway, didn’t the RPT get its start in pharmaceutical packaging? They grew from there by focusing on incremental, but continual, improvement – that idea is worth emulating. But who wants to be a there with no there there? How banal…

  27. Steven Davis II

    “Main Street Greenville is a well-known triumph, which Columbia would very much like to emulate.”

    So Columbia put a homeless shelter there and wonders why businesses are failing.

  28. Steven Davis II

    “That Publix, for instance, is crammed with young adults pretty much every time I go there.”

    Yeah, but what happens after 5:30 p.m.? Are we to believe that you go to the Vista Publix at 10:00 p.m.?

  29. Steven Davis II

    Brad you and Kathryn have this dream that downtown Columbia could become some sort of metropolitan hangout ala, Friends, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, etc…, unless USC continues to buy buildings and turn them into dorms I don’t see it happening.

  30. Steven Davis II

    Have either of you priced property downtown? How many of those Publix condos are still available? Will those last four $350K condos by the old Budget & Control Board building ever sell? Drive past the condos on South Main after dark and count how many lights are on. How many “young professionals” are going to be able to afford a $3000 mortgage payment?

  31. Doug Ross


    Are those young adults “knowledge workers”? Are they even “workers”? I go down to Jillians and other places in the Vista. It looks like a bunch of college kids partying to me. I’ve been down in Five Points on Thursday nights at least a half dozen times this year. It’s a mess of drunk (or on their way to being drunk) students. It’s not a place young professionals would hang out…. and anyway, I don’t know a whole lot of young people who are starting the type of businesses that would change the economy of Columbia. The people who would do that are older and living in Wildewood, Wood Creek (like the mayor.. nuff said), Chapin, etc.

    You guys need to get out of your environments. How many times have you been to Sandhills? There’s more going on there on a weekend than in the Vista.

    You like living downtown or near to it. You have a vested interest in seeing it improve. Unfortunately for you, the people have voted with their feet and moved away from the city. There’s a reason they did. If you want bike paths, you can ride for miles in Lake Carolina and have decent schools, parks, etc. all around you without the crime, the homeless people, the boarded up shops.

    It’s just like the people who want to invest in restoring Decker Blvd. IT AIN’T HAPPENING! There is a huge commercial development going in at Exit 22 (Killian Rd) on I77. People will flock to that area just like they did to Sandhills and Harbison. The majority of people don’t want an urban lifestyle… it’s reality.

  32. Doug Ross


    In the past couple months, I’ve eaten at Tako Sushi, Jillians, Carolina Wings, Mellow Mushroom in the Vista. Remember – I’ve had two kids at USC over the past five years. Been down there MANY times on the weekends.

    How many nights have you and Brad spent in Northeast Columbia?

  33. Doug Ross

    “That Publix, for instance, is crammed with young adults pretty much every time I go there. ”

    Hey, Google – please open a facility in downtown Columbia. We have a grocery store where your employees can hang out.

  34. Doug Ross

    Really? Then who do you think is going to be paying a big chunk of the sales tax to fund the bus system and bike paths downtown? I will gladly vote for an city limits only tax increase.

    Why is it irrelevant? Just because it doesn’t have the specific activities you prefer?

  35. Kathryn Fenner

    Northeast “Columbia,” more properly referred to as Northestern Richland County, is irrelevant because the discussion was about pedestrian and bike paths for knowledge workers, which would be located downtown. No one is going to hike the sidewalks of Two Notch, although maybe dedicated bike paths would work. It is scary enough to drive out there with a whole car around me.
    It’s also irrelevant because it is Generic America. Why locate there except because it is cheaper? That’s not how innovators think. They want to live somewhere with a modicum of cool.

  36. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn – So what you’re suggesting is a “build it and they will come” approach. Where are these “knowledge workers”, they don’t exist in downtown Columbia today. Most IT people I deal with don’t live in downtown Columbia, most live in Northeast Richland County (as you like to call it), out near the lake, or in Lexington County. I’m guessing “knowledge workers” have enough knowledge to stay out of Richland County… or at least downtown Columbia.

    A “modicum of cool”. Would that be in $300,000 1200 sq.ft. condos with views of bums and college students urinating outside your windows? Perhaps of Williams Bryce Stadium and the rest of the industrial park. And when did a bike path become the definition of cool?

  37. Steven Davis II

    The State front page article… so common it’s not even a headline. “Man found bleeding on North Main was shot, police say”

    And some here don’t understand why knowledge workers aren’t relocating to Columbia’s nirvana.

    I can’t remember when the last person was reported shot within 5 miles of me.

  38. Kathryn Fenner

    Many are already here, and will stay, instead of moving on.

    There was a series of shootings in Blythewood not too long ago. The shooting on North Main is far more than five miles away from where I live, btw.

  39. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn – “Many are already here, and will stay, instead of moving on.”

    If you say so.

    What are these “knowledge workers” doing?

  40. Doug Ross

    “Many are already here, and will stay, instead of moving on.”

    Many isn’t close to most. Most net new growth by far is in Northeast Richland County. The genie is already out of the bottle. People have chosen where they want to be.

    Why do you think Steve Benjamin moved out to Wood Creek? Nice big house on a large lot. Plenty of bike riding opportunities for his kids. 15 minutes to downtown.

    It shouldn’t be a case of using tax dollars to try and bring people back to downtown. If businesses think downtown is viable, they would go there.

  41. bud

    Northeast Columbia is the armpit of the midlands. The traffic is unbearable. The housing developments have zero character. Sandhills shopping center is the most poorly designed shopping facility I have ever seen. Nothing there that would attract me. Give it a few years and it will be in terminal decline like the Bush Road area.

  42. Steven Davis II

    @bud – If NE Columbia is the armpit, I’d hate to think what the more southern region south of USC would be considered.

    Do you prefer the vibrant Broad River Road area? Maybe North Main or Decker Blvd. or Two Notch & Beltline… Face it Columbia sucks as a city no matter where you go. If it weren’t for USC and Ft. Jackson, Columbia be just another Orangeburg.

  43. Doug Ross


    Yet as far as I can tell, the next big development is going to occur at the Killian Rd. exit on I77. It will be bigger than Sandhills, providing thousands of jobs.

    Where do you live?

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