Friday, January 4, 2019

Education and tax reform are some of the top priorities as lawmakers return to Columbia for 2019 session

Support for medical marijuana is also looking better, says Sen. Tom Davis

Posted by Adam Manno on Fri, Jan 4, 2019 at 5:26 PM

click to enlarge Lawmakers shared their legislative priorities with the state press corps on Thurs. Jan. 3 - S.C. PRESS ASSOCIATION
  • S.C. Press Association
  • Lawmakers shared their legislative priorities with the state press corps on Thurs. Jan. 3
State lawmakers outlined their legislative priorities for the year Thursday, signaling a shift away from energy discussions that dominated much of last year's session after the $9 billion fallout of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant.

In panel discussions with members of the media, various lawmakers expressed an interest in tackling tax reform, education — both K-12 and higher ed, and medical marijuana.

When it reconvenes on Tues. Jan. 8, the state General Assembly will have a little over $1 billion to spend, with more than half of that, $548.9 million, coming from one-time, non-recurring funds such as the "rainy day" Capital Reserve Fund. The state expects a $220.2 million surplus for 2018-2019, according to projections from the state's Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.

Thursday's Q&A sessions were held in the Blatt building on grounds of the state capitol complex, which houses offices for members of the state House of Representatives. The event was sponsored by the S.C. Press Association, the S.C. Broadcasters Association, and the Associated Press.

Lawmakers spoke about the intersection of tax reform and improving public education, which is largely funded through Act 388, a controversial 2006 law that exempts owner-occupied homes from paying taxes for local schools.

click to enlarge Bennett - S.C. PRESS ASSOCIATION
  • S.C. Press Association
  • Bennett
"My intention is to look at tax code holistically," said Sen. Sean Bennett (R-Dorchester). "You can’t do that without looking at Act 388."

Bennett said that the law has burdened small businesses, but that the tax protections enjoyed by homeowners are likely to remain in place.

Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beautfort) agreed that the law was not generating enough revenue for the state's schools, which consistently place low in national rankings.

"We have a sales tax code that exempts more taxes than it collects," he said, adding that the "only reform that’s gonna happen is getting other categories the same measure of tax relief that four-percent properties have," referring to the tax rate of owner-occupied homes.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg), who proposed consolidating small school districts as a cost-saving measure, agreed that the current school-funding mechanism, which favors homeowners, will likely remain in place.

"Once you’ve provided a benefit to someone, it’s real difficult to take it back," she said.

Davis and Rep. Murrell Smith (R-Sumter) took 
click to enlarge Smith - S.C. PRESS ASSOCATION
  • S.C. Press Assocation
  • Smith
umbrage with the notion that underfunding is solely to blame for the state's education issues.

"We talk about base student cost and all we hear is that we’re underfunding the base student cost," Smith said. "There’s over 100 extra [budget] lines that now comprise that portion of the funding.

"So the discussion that we’re underfunding education is not really correct," he added. "We need to look at the money and where the money is going."

At least two lawmakers cited the the Post & Courier's "Minimally Adequate" series, which detailed a history of racism and inequality leading to current problems with the state's education system, including achievement gaps between urban and rural schools and black and white students.

Sen. Greg Hembree (R-Horry) proposed three ideas when pressed about ways the legislature could improve education: streamlining and consolidating state funds going into education, approving a 10 percent salary increase for state employees making less than $100,000 over the next three years (including teachers)," and ordering a workflow analysis to lessen the administrative burden on the state's teachers.

The issue of election security was briefly mentioned during one of the panels.

Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell (D-Lancaster) said she was working with Rep. Kirkman Finlay (R-Richland) on a bill requiring state residents to vote using hand-marked ballots. The change, she says, would protect the integrity of each vote.

"I see it as a priority even if we were broke," she said.

Sen. Davis, a noted libertarian, said that blocking patients' access to medical marijuana was "inhumane."

He and Rep. Peter McCoy of Charleston are working to advance the S.C. Compassionate Care Act in their respective houses. Last year, the bipartisan bill made it out of committees in both houses but failed to go up for a full vote.

"We’ll have two bills on the Senate calendar in a month or a month and a half’s time," he said.

The first session of the 123rd S.C. General Assembly will convene on Tues. Jan. 8.

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