A penny here, a penny there, and soon people are mad
It’s funny how temporary taxes have a tendency to become permanent.
But folks aren’t laughing much these days.
The government comes with its hand out, looking to stick it in your pocket. Even if it’s for a good cause, it can rub people the wrong way.
At the end of next year, Charleston County’s sales tax is scheduled to drop by 1 percent with the demise of the local option (it’s not really optional, by the way) sales tax for school capital projects.
But as Diette Courrege-Casey reported last week, the district already is talking about how it could use another temporary sales tax. Yes, the district has many building needs — not the least of which is a second high school in Mount Pleasant, the fourth biggest city in the state.
But no matter how great the need is, all these requests for just another penny — on the dollar — certainly gives the “taxed enough already” crowd just cause to protest.
“They are always going to find a way to make a temporary tax permanent or find a way to ask for more money,” says Joanne Jones, vice chairwoman of the Charleston Tea Party. “I think people have had it.”
Too much at one time
In 2010, the school district — with the help of the Chamber of Commerce — won voter approval for the temporary 1 percent tax.
The tax is estimated to bring in $440 million for school building projects by the end of next year. It’s a nice chunk of change, but not nearly enough to sustain the ongoing replacement/new construction schedule of a district with nearly 80 schools.
If that was the only thing on the ballot next year, it might pass. But Charleston County Councilman Dickie Schweers says that if the county asks for another half-cent for road projects and the library system asks for money ... well, it’s going to be Armageddon.
“If one was on the ballot, it’d be a tough sale,” Schweers says. “If all three of them end up on the ballot, they all fail.”
The county is in the same boat as the schools. There is no shortage of road projects this county needs, and the state and federal government aren’t doling out like they used to, so they have to do more on their own.
In 2004, county voters approved a temporary (25 years) half-cent sales tax to cover road projects and buy green space to keep the county from becoming one big subdivision.
The project has worked nicely — the $50 million Johnnie Dodds Boulevard widening in Mount P. came from that money. And there are more road needs than Roadwise can fund.
But asking for another half-cent eight years into this temporary tax?
“I just don’t think taxpayers have an appetite for that,” Schweers says.
One red cent?
A lot of people will tell you that a sales tax is the most regressive way to raise tax dollars.
True, it hurts the poor a lot more than the wealthy. But politicians turn to it time and again for two simple words:
No, they can say, we didn’t raise your taxes — the voters said to do it. Honestly, even politicians who oppose such tax increases have a hard time denying people a say. Schweers says he isn’t sure he could vote against putting a referendum on the ballot, even if he opposes the tax.
After all, Gov. David Beasley opposed a lottery referendum. Look where that got him.
So perhaps there will be three sales tax increases on the ballot next year. Or maybe these separate government entities will find a way to combine them into one.
The Chamber of Commerce is right — expand the constituency, and the referendum is more likely to pass.
But then again, some people may look at all this and come to the conclusion that, sooner or later, all these pennies start to add up.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org or tune in to his live chat at noon today on www.postandcourier.com