COLUMBIA — The Legislature elected a House member’s father to the Medical University of South Carolina board Wednesday after he agreed to pay higher property taxes at his Isle of Palms beach home.
Senators had threatened to walk out of a joint session of the General Assembly rather than participate in electing Dr. Murrell Smith, who has lived and delivered babies in Sumter for more than three decades. The father of Rep. Murrell Smith Jr. was the lone candidate remaining for the seat representing the 5th Congressional District.
He becomes the 10th person with ties to legislators to be elected by the Legislature to a college board this year. The positions don’t carry a salary, but by state law members get a per diem of $35 per meeting and money for meals.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, suggested that the Senate not participate, accusing the senior Smith of using a legal loophole to avoid higher taxes at his beach home.
Rep. Smith, R-Sumter, stressed that his mother owns that home — his father is not on the deed — and they paid the lower tax rate there as allowed by law. He pointed to attorney general opinions regarding residency for officeholders, saying where someone primarily lives is his home, and his father has clearly lived in Sumter since 1977.
Hutto argued that if the elder Smith wants to represent a district that includes Sumter, he needs to pay the 4 percent, owner-occupied property tax rate at his home there, as required of previous board candidates. Second homes are taxed at a 6 percent assessment rate.
Smith’s wife, who owns both properties, filled out the paperwork to transfer their primary residence to Charleston County for the lower tax rate in 2006, when the couple also moved their driver’s license and voter registration addresses. The senior Smith moved the latter two back to Sumter in February, when he filed for the board seat.
On a 5-3 vote, the committee found him qualified for the post, with the nays made by senators. “This is easily solvable. All he has to do is switch his taxes,” Hutto said.
Smith agreed to do so.
Hutto then walked back from his comments and called for the Legislature to support Smith.
“I believe Dr. Smith is a very, very qualified candidate,” Hutto told the joint session.
But the threatened protest should serve as a warning to future candidates, he said.
Dr. Smith did not attend the election due to the controversy.
Rep. Smith said his father will immediately take steps to change to a 4 percent tax rate in Sumter. The paperwork should be in place before he assumes his seat on the board this summer, he said.
“He did not expect this to be an issue,” said Smith, a House member since 2001. He said he knew there would be criticism regarding his father running for a legislatively elected position but didn’t expect this.
“It’s obviously politics. Nobody likes for family members to be criticized, but it was probably more uncomfortable for my father, who is imminently qualified,” Smith said.