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Tax Forum Falls Short

Panelists hold essentially the same views
Shawn Keller

Last night, the League of Women Voters sponsored a forum at the College of Charleston to address property tax reform in the State. While each speaker did raise interesting points on the subject, I left the event with two significant observations. First, the panel was composed of four people who held, more or less, the same position - we should maintain our current tax system. The League should have provided a panel with a more diversified set of opinions instead of he same opinion four times over. If its intent was to provide an open analysis of the differing perspectives on property tax reform, then it failed. If the intent was present the opinion of those for the status quo and against reform, then it succeeded

No discussion of root cause of excessive taxation
The second observation, and it applies to most discussions I've heard on the subject, is that for all the talk there is little to no debate on the root cause of oppressive taxation - excessive government spending. Reform of our taxation system is much needed and long overdue. However, it will have little impact unless we address the waste, the mismanagement, the inefficiency, the bureaucracy and excessive size of the government at all levels. As long as those of like mind as this panel believe that the people exist to serve government, no true reform will be forthcoming.

The panel was composed of Ms. Holly Ulbrich of the Strom Institute at Clemson, Mr. Bill Scarborough from the Chamber of Commerce, Ms. Nancy Cook, Chairwomen of the County School Board and Mr, Bill Moore, political science professor from the College of Charleston. The event was well-attended with about 80 interested observers.

South Carolinians are not over taxed
An economics professor at Clemson and senior fellow at the Institute, Ms. Ulbrich was well armed with statistics and comparisons supporting her position that South Carolinians are not over-taxed, and have some of the lowest taxes in the country. She advocated a system that collects taxes from as many sources as possible as the best way to fund government. In fear of driving commerce away from the state, but mainly because of her strong dislike of a "repressive tax system", she also opposed any plan which raised the sales tax.

Chamber of Commerce is opposed to property tax elimination
Mr. Scarborough spoke from the perspective of the Chamber of Commerce. It is opposed to eliminating residential property tax or increasing the sales tax significantly. Mr Scarborough also cited the need for a diversified tax base in order to fund government. He even suggested eliminating some 200 sales tax exemptions as a way to alleviate the burden of homeowners.

Spoke little on the subject
Ms. Cook spoke on behalf of the School Board and spent most her allotted time listing the positive improvements Charleston County Schools have made over recent years. Her main opposition to the various property tax reform ideas was that it would jeopardize public school funding and adversely impact Charleston County School children. Ms. Cook also took several jabs at the state legislature for blocking the district's attempt at hiring a lobbyist, and at the media for focusing, as she said, on all the negative issues surrounding the district and public education. She stated that the district had not been pro-active in defending its actions in the past and now planned to hire a consultant to engage in an aggressive public relations campaign.

Compromise most likely will win out
Dr. Moore focused more on the legislative process and the likelihood that in the end compromise will win out over wholesale change. He did point out that several interest groups where actively lobbying the legislature not to change the current system dramatically. He stated that the three most powerful lobbying groups in Columbia where the Chamber of Commerce, teacher unions and government employees - all well-represented on this panel.

All four speakers expressed, in their own way, a desire that the legislature take limited action toward reforming our tax system. Mr. Scarborough relayed a very telling anecdote concerning a former legislator defining a good legislative year as one in which nothing gets done.