MY LAST NERVE: Bills That Aren’t What They Seem

January 9, 2015

Inside Insight

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bills and details

DETAILS. PAY ATTENTION TO THE DETAILS.

With a new session beginning next Tuesday, the opportunities for positive reforms to our system of governance, tax structure, and personal freedoms should be plentiful. And while there are some strong reforms on the table this year, it’s the weak refoms – and even some measures that would take us backward – that will likely take center stage if citizens don’t keep a watchful eye on their lawmakers.

Once again many lawmakers are seeking to address the state’s public corruption problem with omnibus ethics reform bills that contain many more troubling and dangerous provisions than the innocuous term “ethics reform” suggests. For example, several of the omnibus bills would allow campaign funds to be spent on almost anything, codify the power of legislative ethics committees to issue confidential advisory opinions, and in one case even allow legislators to represent clients before governmental entities in matters that “may” become contested cases – essentially allowing them to lobby.

But it isn’t just the giant omnibus bills that hide egregious provisions. H.3186 would require lawmakers to disclose some of their private income sources and require more disclosure on their Statement of Economic Interests (SEI), but wouldn’t require the reporting of all income or all matters from which an elected official obtains an economic interest (such as businesses) and maintains a reporting loophole for business associations that don’t meet the threshold of a $100,000 or 5 percent interest. Essentially, then, it’s “income disclosure” with a way around it. Another bill – H.3189 – would infringe on South Carolinians’ rights of association and speech by requiring groups that make an “electioneering communication” – a phrase that could include even mentioning a candidate by name  within 60 days of a general or 30 days of a primary election – to disclose their donors.

Tax increases and new taxes (fines and fees) will also need to be watched closely this session. Generating additional revenue for infrastructure improvements seems to be a recurring theme among some lawmakers. The following bills would either raise or implement new fines, fees, and taxes and dedicate the additional revenue to the State Non-Federal Aid Highway Fund.

  • H.3004 and H.3065 would require that non-farm utility trailers be registered and that the registration fees be credited to the fund.

  • H.3061 adds a $250 fee to any conviction of a traffic offense assigned a value of six points, as well as several other offenses (such as DUI), and directs that revenue to the fund.

  • H.3064 would increase the $300 cap on motor vehicle sales to $750 and send the revenue to the fund.

  • H.3066 would increase golf cart permit and registration fees from $5 to $50, and send the additional $45 to the fund.

  • S.27 would reduce the tax rate for all state income tax brackets by 2 percent over 10 years in exchange for a doubling of the gas tax from 18 to 36 cents over the same time period.

It seems lawmakers hear citizens loud and clear when it comes to our dissatisfaction with the quality of our roads. Unfortunately, many seem to think the only way to accomplish that goal is to raise or create new taxes. The unaccountable governing structure of the state’s transportation system is the real problem, and should be addressed in advance of any consideration of raising new revenue.

There’s also a possibility that a statewide property tax bill may be filed this year to “solve” the problems identified in the recent Supreme Court education ruling. Much like the transportation governing system, our education system is a confusing mess with little unaccountability. Again, before lawmakers jump to raise taxes to “fix” the state’s problems they ought to address the structural problem head-on.

These are just a few of the worst bills I’ve seen. What it looks like to me is that lawmakers are willing to address the topics citizens care about, but not willing to make any tough decisions except for the politically tough decision of raising taxes. Citizens should keep a close eye on tax increases and reforms purporting to give them “most of what they want” while actually accomplishing nothing but entrenching the status quo.

Session starts next Tuesday. We’ll see quickly whether lawmakers intend to follow the cues given by their constituents or continue the pattern of self-enrichment and half-hearted reform.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization