'Temporary' taxes? Well, that's up to the voters
Don't think folks around here haven't realized that "temporary tax" is the biggest oxymoron to come along since "jumbo shrimp."
You can bet any time politicians propose a temporary tax for anything, you're going to have a hard time ever getting their hands out of your wallet.
Cases in point: Both Berkeley County and the Charleston County School District plan to ask voters in November to extend temporary sales taxes, before their old ones even expire.
Now that technically isn't even legal - but it almost certainly will be by the time the Legislature adjourns in June.
Berkeley County wants to continue a 1-percent sales tax for road improvements, and Charleston school officials say they need to continue collecting their 1 percent to keep up with the district's burgeoning growth.
It's hard to deny the need is there. Just ask anyone who has to cram their kid into Wando High, or drive Clements Ferry Road. Everybody and their brother is moving to the Lowcountry, and it's putting tremendous stress on our infrastructure.
The only good news is that both of these temporary taxes are going to a public vote.
The Charleston school system is adding the equivalent of a new elementary school worth of kids to its rolls every year.
School officials have been busting it just to keep up. Their current temporary sales tax has built four elementary schools and added on to Wando. Now if they have to wait for the current tax to expire, and then go back to voters, two years will elapse - putting them even farther behind.
Reserve your classroom trailers now.
Sen. Larry Grooms, who is pushing the legislation to allow Berkeley County to ask voters for an extension, says they have the same problem. Since these last temporary taxes were enacted, state law has changed - now such referenda can only be included on statewide general election ballots.
Waiting for the next one of those would put Berkeley behind on its road projects for a couple of years.
"I have no problem with this when you let the people decide," Grooms says.
A good point, and a crucial one here.
Berkeley County Councilman Tim Callanan says it is not only mandatory that people get to decide, but they need to know what they are voting for. He says this referendum must include not only the list of projects that will be funded, but also the order in which they will be tackled.
Clements Ferry Road was listed on the last Berkeley referendum, but that project fell to the bottom of the list and the road is even worse now. That's just unacceptable.
"We've got to be more open," Callanan says. "It's up to government to be more open. If we do that, the people will respond to it because they know there are needs."
And ultimately it is appropriate to call these taxes temporary, as Callanan says, because they can be killed by the people.
They have the ultimate authority.
The fine print
Last month, the state House passed a bill allowing Charleston County schools to go forward with its referendum as well. State Rep. Seth Whipper of North Charleston was the lone vote against it.
His problem is allowing more money for schools without some assurances that the district will serve all the people. Public schools are the best deal out there, he says, but he is not sure the district is paying attention to all the needs.
"I'm concerned about the parents who really need help getting it," Whipper says. "I can't see continuing to give money to the schools unless more people benefit."
That's a good point. It is exactly why it is mandatory that both Berkeley and Charleston counties list every single project these "temporary" taxes are going to fund. And, as Callanan rightly insists, in what order.
Nobody wants to wait another decade for a second high school in Mount Pleasant.
It's too bad voters don't have as much influence over the state, which has forced us into this situation by scaling back education dollars and allowing our roads to go to the devil.
Unfortunately, the government has everyone over a barrel. Either we vote for these referenda, or our schools become massively overcrowded and our bridges continue to collapse.
That might slow the inward migration, but we'll still be stuck with the problem.
It's enough to make you wonder if "sustainable growth" isn't an oxymoron, too.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org