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.”