COLUMBIA — With sea levels rising, state lawmakers in South Carolina are seeking to use tourism-related taxes to help pay for projects that could reduce the number of flooded streets and damaged homes in Charleston and other coastal communities.
Sens. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, and Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, along with other state lawmakers, came up short of passing a bill to do just that in the final days of this year's legislative session. Supporters of that proposal, however, vowed to push the legislation again next year.
The lawmakers' plan would loosen state laws to allow city and county councils in the Palmetto State to use accommodations and hospitality taxes — collected from bars, hotels, restaurants and campgrounds — to bankroll flood-related projects in tourism areas.
Currently, that tax revenue must be used to market South Carolina and local communities as tourism destinations and spur business. But lawmakers, like Campsen, believe cities and towns need more flexibility to use that money to pay for costly flood repair and prevention efforts.
"I mean, if Charleston is awash in seawater, you're not going to have any tourism anyway," Campsen said. "And it's just gonna get worse, too. It's definitely something we need in Charleston."
Lawmakers in the House and Senate both passed a version of the legislation this year, but they failed to reach a compromise before the session ended.
Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, and other representatives wanted the tax change to apply only to counties that pull in more than $14 million in accommodations and hospitality taxes every year. That would have resulted in only Charleston and Horry counties qualifying.
Finlay and others didn't like the idea of tourism marketing funds being diverted for other purposes. He believes local leaders should raise water and sewer fees if they want to increase funding for flood prevention projects.
"That's why they are segregated funds. They are designed to do specific, designated things," Finlay said.
Still, Finlay recognized the serious issues that Charleston is having with frequent flooding. That's why he supported the legislation that applied only to Charleston and Horry counties.
Campsen would have agreed to that compromise if the rest of the Senate had gone along with it. That wasn't the case this year, but the need isn't going away, he said.
The city of Charleston alone has estimated that it has $2 billion worth of drainage and flood protection needs.
"We're going to have to hobble a lot of funding sources from different areas, different sources, to make this work," Campsen said of the ongoing flooding costs. "It's going to be such a huge expense."