COLUMBIA - The S.C. House fast-tracked and passed a bill Thursday that would allow Charleston County schools to continue a program that has allowed the district to build new schools and plan for other ambitious capital projects.
Charleston and Horry counties are the only localities that benefit from a 1 percent sales tax dedicated to each school system's capital needs. The program is slated to expire in 2016, and lawmakers want to get a new referendum question on the ballot in hopes voters will approve the program in November.
The bill, H. 4602, had been quickly added to the House schedule and required a procedural move to receive a vote. It did and was passed easily, 79-1. Rep. J. Seth Whipper, D-North Charleston, was the lone vote against the bill. He could not be reached for comment.
The Senate still needs to take up the measure before the end of the legislative session in June.
Michael Bobby, the Charleston school system's finance director, said the program has been a boon for capital projects. The $450 million through 2016 has provided for four new elementary schools and construction of a new advanced studies center at Wando High School.
Bobby said that if the state passes legislation to allow it, voters will have the opportunity to see and approve a list of new projects. The school board has not yet made a decision on which projects should be included or how long a new program would run.
The 47,000-student school system is growing by 500 to 700 students per year, so capital needs will only become more acute, he said.
The bill also allows improves the program, officials said. The school could use the money to finance long-term bonds instead of a "pay-as-you-go" system, which they say would reduce the overall cost of projects. They could also use any additional funds generated by the 1 percent tax to reduce property taxes.
Bill sponsor Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, told House members that the school's growth rate justified both the quick vote and the dedication of funds.
"It means we fall an entirely new school behind (each year)," he said of the system's growth.
John Steinberger, chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party, said that while he wasn't familiar with the bill to allow for an extension of the sales tax, he has some concerns about allowing for an extension.
"We should make sure the money is being spent wisely before we commit more money," he said.
Tom Drucker, vice chairman of the Charleston County School Board, said the district is dealing with overcrowding, especially in Mount Pleasant. Additional funds are better gained from the sales tax than an increase in property taxes, he said.
"To me, the one-cent sales tax is the lesser of two evils," he said.
The timing of the referendum could be an issue this year, said school board member Elizabeth Moffly. Charleston County Public Library officials are also pitching a $103 million bond referendum for the November ballot.
"We could have competing factions," she said. "I don't know how well the voters will receive multiple referendums at one time."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837. Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546.