The Penny Tax

bad roadsLexington County’s proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax – Penny For Pavement – has exploded into an “us vs them” campaign in possibly the fastest growing area of the state.  On one side are county officials and developers who understand the very real and present crisis in Lexington’s highway and road system and on the other is a vocal group of citizens who resist any and all tax increases or additions.  One side is right, but isn’t trusted and the other side is wrong, but with good reason.

Lexington County wants to impose a one percent sales tax to pay not just for deteriorating roads, but to expand roadways in a rapidly developing area.  The county has become more than a bedroom community to the state capital and a way station for recreationists at Lake Murray, it is becoming an economic powerhouse of its own.  

Highway 378 (Sunset Blvd.) is a major retail thoroughfare between the cities of Lexington and Columbia as well as a leading medical/health care center.  Columbia Metro Airport, Amazon and the Farmers Market are in one corner of the county while residential developments are popping up between the two cities and around the lake.  Highway 1 is being widened between Lexington and Batesburg-Leesville as homes and businesses spread west.  The area along Highway 6 (South Lake Dr.) south of I-20 has exploded and Rte. 602 (Platt Springs Rd.) has been widened to accommodate access to that area.

But where new roads are not being built or expanded, old ones are ignored.  Crumbling shoulders, pot holes, split seams and “waves” in the pavement are not just an embarrassment, they’re an impediment.  The multi-million dollar, multi-year need is real and must be addressed immediately.  Thus, the penny tax.

What the planners for this tax did, however, is continue the practice that has the opposition so charged.  Instead of a tax that is road-specific and ONLY road-specific, the panel that put the spending package together included more pork than can be found at a year’s worth of Carolina barbecues.

The State newspaper laid out the proposed projects;

• $178.4 million – 66 percent of revenue the tax would generate – is earmarked for 24 road projects.

• $53.1 million – 20 percent of revenue – is earmarked for 22 water, sewer and drainage improvements.

• $21 million – 8 percent of revenue– is earmarked for 11 new buildings and recreation facilities.

• $15.6 million – 6 percent of revenue – is earmarked for 12 paths and sidewalks.

It is the more than $36 million (14%) of the proposed spending that has the anti-tax forces so angry.  This is what the county failed to consider or fully appreciate.  Folks in South Carolina don’t like taxes.  To be so stupid as to include anything other than roads and other essential infrastructure projects in the proposal and be so removed from constituents is administrative suicide.  

Fiscal irresponsibility has much to do with the opposition, too.  Far too often governments at all levels have promised to do one thing with tax revenue, but decided they had to change for “contingency reasons.”  Those “contingencies” wind up being anything from covering up budget mistakes to pork projects to just any ‘ol whim that meets their fancy.  The ugly fact is that government cannot be trusted with money.

 No TaxThis is a tax-and-spend vote-buying socialist bond,” said David Whetsell of Red Bank, leader of Stop Tax.  I’m not sure if that’s hyperbole or just stupid, but it’s an honest opinion grounded in experience.

That’s not to say the anti-tax activists are completely correct.  The need is very real and solutions are necessary.  How folks like Mr. Whetsell and others think the problems will be resolved is unknown.  

The libertarian bunch that is so visceral about taxes are, in some ways, like “welfare whores.”  They expect government to give them what they want – in this case good roads, safe bridges and functional infrastructure – but they don’t want to pay for it.  

I attended a town hall meeting held by a two state senators and a state representative and with a whole bunch of citizens.  When the representative asked “Would you support a penny on the dollar tax if it was designated just for roads?,” the libertarian crowd roared “NO!”

There are two realities living in the same space and conflicting with each other.  Government has proven to be a poor steward of taxpayer money.  That reality was ignored by planners who included things other than necessary road and water/sewer/drainage items in the spending proposal.  But at the same time, the anti-tax forces would rather suffer the inevitable consequences that come with a lousy infrastructure than to give up a penny per dollar in sales tax.

Lexington County should remove the non-essentials, add those dollars to roads and pass a binding county law stipulating that those funds cannot be used for anything else, nor be proposed for other purposes via referendum or other measure.

That probably won’t satiate the anti-tax people, but at least it will be viewed as an honest effort to do what is needed and in a more responsible way.


One comment

  1. At least in Lexington County the voters are having a say, here in Fairfield the County Council set up a shell corporation “Fairfield Facilities LLC” and borrowed 24 million (installment Purchase Revenue Bonds) to fund questionable projects, without any public input. So perhaps Lexington County Council should hire a bond Council to teach them how to skirt the law. Little wonder we have such little faith in our elected leaders.


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