COLUMBIA - Charleston County voters will get to decide this fall whether they wish to extend a tax that pays for capital improvements for school districts.
The measure, signed by Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday, allows for school officials to hold a voter referendum to pass a 1 percent sales tax increase. In Charleston County, officials will be able to ask voters whether they want to extend the tax, ahead of its expiration in 2016.
The bill's signing was a concern for some Charleston County officials and representatives, after learning of Sen. Kevin Bryant's efforts to have Haley veto the bill. Bryant, R-Anderson, argued if all the counties pass the referendum, taxpayers would be out $1.7 billion. Bryant unsuccessfully attempted to block the bill's passage last week with a filibuster.
In the past, the law allowed only Horry and Charleston counties to levy the tax through a referendum. But this time, 16 counties are included. The counties would have the option to let voters decide whether they'd like a tax assessed on a local level.
If Charleston voters pass a referendum this November, the tax would be extended until 2022.
Bryant acknowledged the bill's passing would not equate to an immediate tax increase for every county. He said his concern would be the pro-yes campaign paid for by special interests groups encouraging the referendum to pass on a local level, once the bill became law.
Despite his calling, Haley signed the bill, "because it lets voters decide for themselves how they would like their local tax structure to look."
"Although I believe that voters should be given the power to make these decisions for themselves, I hope that those affected by this bill will decide not to impose this additional tax," Haley said in a release. "A more complex tax code with higher rates is an impediment to a growing economy and works at cross-purposes with our successful efforts to reduce taxes at the state level, which have contributed to the steadily growing economy in our state."
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he applauds Haley for allowing the legislation to move forward.
"I applaud the Governor for allowing the voters to decide whether or not to have a sales tax to improve schools in Charleston County and statewide," Kimpson said. "This really is more of a major impact for the 16 counties that will be included."
The sales tax is expected to generate $450 million through 2016 in Charleston County. The funds have provided for four new elementary schools and construction of an advanced studies center at Wando High School. The district is estimating a six-year extension of the tax would generate $540 million of which $378 million to go toward major capital projects. The rest of the funds would go toward maintaining school buildings and technology.
Charleston County School District Chief Financial Officer Mike Bobby said he was pleased Haley signed the bill.
"It gives us the opportunity to collaborate and to continue to do some really great things down the road," Bobby said. "We appreciate the fact that she signed it and that we'll be able to continue forward."
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, who had been a champion for getting the bill passed, said while he is generally in favor of limiting tax increases, those opposed to this bill it wrong. He said he hasn't heard much opposition locally to extending the tax.
"I think most people in Charleston County are happy with how the capital improvement taxes are working," he said. "I think it's much better to build schools this way than with a straight up property tax increase."
Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.