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Hursey Elementary School students participate in a special music therapy class funded by parents. Could reinstating at least some school taxes for owner-occupied homes be part of a statewide school funding overhaul that otherwise could cost Charleston County schools $48 million a year? Wade Spees/Staff

Joe Riley had forced Nick Theodore into a runoff for the 1994 Democratic nomination for governor, and Mr. Theodore was painting the mayor as a tax-and-spend liberal. His evidence: Charleston’s budget had increased by 420 percent during the 19 years Mr. Riley had been mayor, and property tax bills had skyrocketed.

Mr. Riley protested that in fact he had cut the tax rate by 30 percent; property tax collections had gone up because property values had skyrocketed — in the same way that your annual sales tax payments would go up if you bought a lot more stuff.

But Mr. Theodore refused to back down. "It's not the mills, it's the bills," he insisted over and over, in one of the most memorably deceptive campaign attacks I had ever heard. 

Mr. Theodore won the runoff — and lost to David Beasley in November — and Mr. Riley came back home to serve the second half of his 40-year term as Charleston’s mayor. South Carolina’s loss was our gain.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

I was reminded of that attack recently when an item appeared in my inbox trumpeting the fact that South Carolina has the 6th-lowest residential property taxes in the nation.

Which is something you probably didn’t realize.

Since around 2011, it’s been easy to find such rankings, which use Census data to calculate average homeowner property tax rates for all 50 states, by dividing the annual property tax paid on each home by the home’s value. (My go-to tax-ranking source, The Tax Foundation, has us at fifth lowest.)

But during the 1994 election, no one was producing those rankings, nationally or inside the state, because the information just wasn’t easily available, so it was easy to demagogue the issue. That was still the case 12 years later, when the Legislature passed Act 388, eliminating homeowner property taxes for school operations in exchange for raising the state sales tax by a penny on the dollar, which was supposed to replace property tax revenue but never has.

In fact, it was the very lack of information about how our property taxes compared to other states that made it so easy for a few homeowners whose property values had increased dramatically to convince legislators that people were about to start losing their homes in droves if they didn’t take action to slash property taxes.

Of course, nobody lives in the town of Average, S.C. But the national ranking provides useful context as the Legislature attempts to adopt a new funding formula for schools, and school advocates push for the repeal of Act 388's homeowner tax exemption. (The exemption was just one part of Act 388, and not even the worst part, but that’s a story for another day.)

The working outline put together at the request of Gov. Henry McMaster and legislative leaders, and delivered this month, says that in order to start providing the same level of services for students in all districts, the state would need to shift $174 million from 26 school districts to the 55 other districts. (Top loser: Charleston County, at $48 million a year.)

Now, probably the only option less likely than the Legislature raising taxes is the Legislature reducing funding for 26 school districts. But the sort of data that we didn’t have when that exemption was created makes it impossible to argue that our sixth-lowest homeowner property taxes are inordinately high.

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The ranking in my inbox, from the online research site Construction Coverage, found that the median property tax paid nationally was 1.09 percent of a home’s value in 2018, with taxes ranging from a low of 0.28 percent in Hawaii to a high of 2.58 percent in New Jersey. South Carolina’s average tax was 0.56 percent — or $560 on a $100,000 home.

North Carolina and Georgia are tied at 20th-lowest, at 0.86 percent. That means we’d still be in the bottom half, and tied with our neighbors, if lawmakers instituted a 0.3 percent statewide homeowner property tax to help pay for schools. Or, they could set it at 0.53 percent, and overall homeowner property taxes would be right at the national average.

Either change is the longest of long shots — lawmakers are more likely to either ignore the new funding model or take money from other state services to hold those 26 districts harmless. But at least this time when we talk about whether homeowners should contribute to the operation of the schools, we can have the debate with some solid information, rather than relying on anecdotal horror stories from a small group of outliers.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at cscoppe@postandcourier.com or on Facebook or Twitter @CindiScoppe.

Follow Cindi Ross Scoppe on Twitter or Facebook @cindiscoppe.