Serving as either an ugly indicator of voter apathy or a ringing endorsement of the status quo, only three of the 13 races for the state House of Representatives will be contested in this November's election. The winners will have a few months to rest, but work in January no doubt will center on weeding through the financial mire left in the last-minute approval of the 1-cent sales tax hike to pull school district operations off local property tax bills in 2007.
The one good thing about the confusing tax "solutions" is that we can actually move on to something else. Other themes candidates are highlighting include recent upswings in violence in the area and the ever-present question of controlling growth. Eminent domain, healthcare funding and the money for roads, including the lion's share of the bill for the extension of U.S. 526 from Savannah Highway to the James Island Connector, will continue to be issues for the legislature. Regardless of who's in the governor's mansion, there likely will be legislative efforts to get more public school kids in private schools and a restructuring of the governor's cabinet.
Platt vs. Scarborough – District 115
A self-professed environmental radical, Democrat Eugene Platt supports tourism and the revenues it brings with it, but says transplants are cramping his Lowcountry style. As everyone starts huddling around the coast, the challenger for the House District 115 seat says he sees a bleak future.
"It's almost as if many elected officials and business leaders are doing their best to emulate Atlanta," he says of continued development in the region. "By doing so, they're destroying the qualities that have made the Lowcountry such a wonderful place to live."
Companies granted incentives should be forced to hire more than 75 percent of their crew locally and not transplant workers here, Platt says, and individuals hankering for the benefits of coastal living should consider a change of heart about landlocked America.
"There are places inland that are nice places to live, too," he says. "Nashville. Omaha. Des Moines. Nice places. People should be encouraged to stay there."
He supports plans to fund school operating costs from Columbia as opposed to using local property taxes, but he takes issue with state plans to hike the sales tax a penny to pay for it, preferring an increase in the income tax instead.
"There seems to be a misconception by the legislature that the sales tax can be a panacea for all of the state's needs," he says. "It's regressive, impacted heaviest upon those that can least afford to pay it to begin with."
A supporter of charter schools, Platt opposes the voucher and tax credit programs that have been proposed by Republicans that would benefit private schools.
"Until all public schools are brought up to a minimum level, it would be inappropriate to syphon off public money," he says.
On the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November to ban gay marriage and the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, Platt takes the conservative point of view that marriage is threatened. Considering himself a progressive kind of guy with friends that have a different sexual "preference," Platt says that his religious beliefs and those of his district support limiting marriage to heterosexuals.
Republican incumbent Wallace Scarborough refused to comment for this article. The three-term incumbent has faced accusations recently by his wife in divorce filings that he had an affair with a fellow legislator.
Platt refuses to comment on the allegations, but questions a reference to Scarborough denying the affair in The State newspaper in early September. The accusations by Scarborough's wife come with photos, phone records, and testimony from a private investigator.
"My opponent has a problem with honesty," Platt says. "I challenge him to either admit that he lied about the affair or, alternatively, to give his constituents some convincing evidence that the allegations are untrue."
Eugene Platt (D, working families)
Age: 67 Residence: James Island Family: Two children, a grandchild Education: Bachelor's from the University of South Carolina, graduate study at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Job: Retired from U.S. government Political Experience: James Island Public Service District Commission since 1993 Website: www.voteplatt.com
Wallace Scarborough (R-Incumbent)
Age: 47 Residence: James Island Family: Two children Education: Bachelor's from The Citadel Job: Atlantic Coast Life Insurance Co. Political Experience: State House member since 2001
Piper vs. Stavrinakis – District 119
The news in most other campaigns is who's running, but in District 119, it's who's not. John Graham Altman III, in the seat since birth (or soon after), has stepped away for the new guard. Likely hoping to usher in a hand-picked successor, the district instead is very much in play for either party as an active Republican takes on a Democrat seasoned in local politics.
Republican Suzanne Piper, a realtor and appraiser, bided her time waiting for the opportunity to work in the Statehouse. Considering herself a problem solver, Piper says that voters have sounded off to her about a variety of issues, including property taxes, schools, and crime.
Thankful as a homeowner that the legislature passed a tax swap last year to pull most school costs off of tax bills, Piper is hopeful that more work can be done to eliminate property taxes for homeowners completely. Finding the money will be challenging but could come from implementing fees for other needs like road maintenance to open space in the budget or by using one-time surplus funds.
"We (homeowners) don't need to be renting our homes," she says.
Piper would also look to provide property tax relief for small-business owners that struggle under the tax, fee, and insurance costs that must be paid before they even open their doors.
On education, Piper says that charter school reforms have made the question of tuition tax credits for private schools moot, but she would support the credits for parents that choose to homeschool their children. She supports increasing protections for teachers from civil suits and physical attacks by students. She also echoes local efforts to develop more vocational opportunities.
"If we don't put vocational, trade, and skill studies in every high school, we're going to lose that 50 percent that's failing," she says.
With homicides mounting in the region, Piper supports efforts for truth in sentencing to assure criminals serve the sentence they're given and that tougher sentencing be imposed for gun crimes.
Making sure that homeowners are fairly and adequately insured will also be a priority if she's elected.
"What we've got to have are no-risk insurance policies," she says.
While this may be a race without an incumbent, you can't call Leon Stavrinakis an unknown. He's served on the Charleston County Council for eight years and has been the chair since 2004.
"Over eight years, people know that I'm not a partisan guy and that I'm conservative on a lot of things," he says, most notably taxes, spending, and growth control.
Though supportive of annexations in general, Stavrinakis says unkempt zoning by municipalities needs to be controlled. He suggests requiring counties and municipalities to work together on regional planning and possibly requiring municipalities that annex land to adhere to zoning standards established by the county.
While some Johns Island residents were riled by his support for extending U.S. 526 over the island to connect Savannah Highway to the James Island Connector, Stavrinakis says he recognizes the development pressures tied to the new road and will introduce plans before he leaves County Council to increase density restrictions on the island.
"We're not building 526 with a blind eye," he says.
Once in Columbia, Stavrinakis would introduce legislation to mandate at least 65 percent of school funding make it to the classroom. By shuffling funds from elsewhere in the district, at the local board's discretion, the move would put an additional $20.5 million per year into classrooms in Charleston County and more than $260 million annually into classrooms statewide.
"If you look at the top 10 schools in standardized testing, they put more than 64 percent of their spending in the classroom," he says.
Stavrinakis supports the 15 percent reassessment cap on the ballot in November, but notes details need to be ironed out on a 1 cent sales tax hike that will pay operating costs for schools instead of local property tax bills.
"The only thing that worries me is how they're going to fund our schools in the years ahead."
On crime, Stavrinakis wants statewide mandatory sentencing on gun-related crimes, possibly emulating federal standards.
"If you have a record and you get caught with a gun, you go to jail automatically," he says.
He'd also support across-the-board increases for drug sentencing and more parole officers.
"We're making the investment locally," he says. "The help needs to come from Columbia."
Suzanne R. Piper (R)
Age: 50 Residence: Charleston Family: Married, a child Education: Bachelor's from University of South Carolina Job: Realtor and appraiser Political Experience: None Website: www.piperforhouse.com
Leon Stavrinakis (D)
Age: 40 Residence: Charleston Family: Married, two children Education: Bachelor's from the College of Charleston, law degree from University of South Carolina Job: Lawyer with the Stavrinakis law firm Political Experience: Charleston County Council since 1998, chair since 2004 Website: www.leonforhouse.com
Horne vs. Miller – District 108
Developer Ricky Horne may be a political newcomer, but precedent is providing the first hurdle for his candidacy. Democrat Vida Miller has faced competition from Republicans in four of her five House races, besting the last challenger by 12 percentage points. Horne took a stab at Statehouse office two years ago in a state Senate race, but dropped out to give fellow Republican Ray Cleary his support. He's running for the state House seat against Miller in an effort to provide District 108 a seat at the leadership table.
"I haven't been there 10 years," he says. "I don't have all the answers, but working with the party that controls the money and the resources will be important to taxpayers."
After serving as a member of the Georgetown County Transportation Commission for a year-and-a-half, Horne says he quickly realized that transportation funding wasn't getting to his area. He says that Miller not having a seat at the majority table has been the problem.
A product of the tourism industry, now working as a contractor, Horne says that Georgetown should focus short-term efforts on attracting tourism jobs even though he recognizes most of the jobs are low-income employment.
"They can make a career in the hotel business," he says. "I'm an example."
Once Georgetown becomes a tourism destination, it can begin attracting small, cottage industries, Horne says.
Horne notes South Carolina is excelling in education compared only to Mississippi – otherwise, we're failing. He supports tuition tax credits for private schools, noting public school districts have the financial resources to be competitive, but not the incentive.
He also supports consolidating the state's 84 school districts into 46 county-wide districts as another cost-effective solution to government waste.
Calling the recent tax swap and proposed reassessment cap "band-aid measures," Horne says he'd push for complete tax reform, targeting loopholes in the tax system and wasteful spending in the state budget. He's a strong proponent for a fair tax, a grassroots call for repealing income tax collections for a larger nationwide retail sales tax.
Democrat Vida Miller says early work for the legislature next year will be to settle the lingering questions from the state's tax swap. The program includes a 15 percent cap on property reassessments that's on the ballot in November and replacing local property taxes for schools with an added penny on the sales tax.
"One big concern of mine is school funding," she says, noting that there needs to be a clear understanding on when the district will receive state funding to avoid having to borrow the money in anticipation of the state aid.
Other concerns from the business community and local governments regarding the cap will also need to be addressed, Miller says.
"This is an ongoing issue," she says. "Whatever happens in November, it's still going to need a lot more study. We've just not been able to come up with the perfect solution."
Insurance has also been a major issue for constituents, Miller says, as insurance companies add to the premium of living on the coast.
"I've had lots of people call and tell me that rates have gone up or their policies have been cancelled," she says.
Providing adequate funding to meet the growing needs in the region will also be important as more people are lured to the coast, Miller says, with transportation as the number one priority.
"We have to find the resources to help fund the Department of Transportation and get projects completed and get others off the drawing board," she says.
A member of the conference committee that crafted recent modifications to the state's charter school program, Miller says she's a proponent for school choice. But she notes that efforts for vouchers or tuition tax credits for private school enrollment that have been proposed in the last few years would be to the detriment of the state's public schools and certainly not a fix for parents that have fallen on hard times.
"How can you have an income tax credit if you don't have an income?"
Ricky Horne (R)
Age: 53 Residence: Pawleys Island Family: Two children, a grandchild Education: Attended Georgetown Technical College and Coastal Carolina University Job: Contractor Political Experience: None Website: www.rickyhorne.com
Vida Miller (D-incumbent)
Age: 56 Residence: Pawleys Island Family: Married, two step-children Education: Attended North Greenville College and Bob Jones Unviersity Job: Grayman Gallery Political Experience: State House member since 1997; Georgetown County School Board, 1988-1994 Website: www.vidamiller.com