COLUMBIA — Taking the pulse of South Carolina voters on a broad list of state and national policy initiatives, a recent poll found 57 percent support removal of board members in underperforming school districts and 67 percent support individual state tax reform.
Education, the economy and crime were the issues of greatest concern to registered voters surveyed. Results of the August poll, funded by the state Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, will give the organization data to use in lobbying for law changes.
Chamber President Ted Pitts said he's hopeful lawmakers presented with the numbers will have confidence to act where they've previously been hesitant to pass reform legislation. He said people should expect to see the business community active in addressing what he calls "tough issues," from tax to immigration reform.
For example, poll respondents did not shy away from the more controversial portions of an education bill under consideration by the state Legislature.
"Democrats and Republicans both believe there ought to be drastic tools in the toolbox when it comes to dealing with chronically underperforming schools," Pitts said.
In addition to removal of school boards, 60 percent of respondents expressed support for state Department of Education intervention.
While sections of the education reform bill passed by the House this past session have garnered opposition, much of the authority it expands on has existed for decades. That includes provisions in the state budget that allow the state superintendent to declare a state of emergency, replace staff or bring in “transformational coaches” to help the worst-performing schools. The Office of School Transformation is overseeing state efforts to improve three school districts taken over since June 2017.
The reform legislation, now being considered by the Senate in the interim, beefs up oversight of schools with the worst scores and gives the state superintendent more options for what can happen to schools and districts that fail to improve.
Pitts called proposals in the House bill "all steps in the right direction" and said he's hopeful education reform won't be another issue lawmakers only pay lip service.
When it comes to the economy, the majority of respondents, 58 percent, said tariffs are harmful to the state, which has a heavy international manufacturing base. But when broken down by political party, respondents who identified as Democrats were more likely to see tariffs as harmful while those who identified as Republicans said they were helpful.
"Republicans tend to support and understand the need to take on China," Pitts said, calling the country a "bad actor."
"Tariffs are taxes, but this is a negotiating tactic by President Trump," Rep. Joe Wilson said at a recent Chamber event.
Rep. William Timmons expressed support for the president and made predictions that conflicts would be resolved before the next election.
"I don't see this going on in July, August, September of next year," he said.
The Chamber thinks addressing Chinese trade practices is long overdue, but engaging in trade battles with allies hurts those efforts.
"When you try to fight on multiple fronts, nobody wins," Pitts said.
The divide was steep on immigration, split mostly along party lines, with 40 percent of respondents calling it a drain on the economy. Pitts said those results were not a surprise, though he pointed out the question didn't designate between legal and illegal immigration.
"Obviously, the business community depends on legal immigration," Pitts said, particularly in agriculture, hospitality and technology.
He said Chamber members want federal lawmakers to come up with a reasonable compromise.