S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, June 12, 2005
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/05.0612.nextyr.htm

COMMENTARY
Big issues ahead for next year's General Assembly
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JUNE 12, 2005 - - While state lawmakers patted themselves on the backs for all of the bills they passed over the last five months, there's still a lot of work left for next session.

Perhaps the biggest new chunk of business they'll bite off is reviewing the state's property tax laws and whether they can be changed fairly to reduce the tax burden on some.

Across the state and especially in areas experiencing fast growth, many property owners are feeling the pinch of increased property tax bills. Over the last couple of years, a quiet rumble of discontent quaked into more serious fury after Charleston County tried to cap increased valuations of assessed property to a modest rise. The effort was found unconstitutional by the courts because the state constitution says property tax rates have to be based on fair market value.

In December, Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed a similar move by last year's General Assembly to cap valuation increases to 20 percent. He cited constitutional concerns as one of the reasons for the veto.

Over the summer, state senators will take another crack at what can be done on property taxes as special subcommittees will examine financial and constitutional implications of any changes. All ideas reportedly are on the table for discussion. Lawmakers will be looking for creative ways to keep from shifting the burden to many while lowering the burden on the fewer people whose property has increased, such as people with big houses on the coast and elderly people who live in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Other business on next year's agenda includes:

Isolated wetlands. Many Democrats and Republicans are still miffed no bill to protect wetlands in South Carolina was introduced this year.

"We've got to protect wetlands next year," said Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton. "It's time to call people to task."

Restoring government. Democrats say they will work to restore cuts suffered by state government over the last few years. They say there are a lot of needs with school buildings and prisons. Recent shortfalls also have hurt mental health programs and caused colleges to raise tuitions.

School funding. It's likely a state judge will rule over the summer that the state's rural schools are funded inequitably. While the case will be appealed regardless of which side wins, it will put lawmakers on notice that they'll have to change school funding sometime soon.

ALSO THIS WEEK

McLEMORE'S WORLD: Conservation for airlines?

KEEPING TRACK: Right on judicial study

SCORECARD: Thumbs up and down

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Other education plans. Democrats in the House and Senate may have a special education plan next year because they say they're tired, as one lawmaker said, of seeming only to oppose bad legislation. The plan could include a more proactive approach to reducing class sizes, more early childhood education programs, and more after-school and homework programs. Meanwhile, some Republicans will continue to push Sanford's "Put Parents In Charge" voucher plan.

Restructuring. While the governor's restructuring proposals are stalled in the House and Senate, they likely will face new scrutiny next year.

Road funding. With recent news about the millions of dollars of shortfalls in state road maintenance funds, some lawmakers say they'll work to address ways roads and maintenance are funded. That could come in the form of a new push for an increase to the gas tax.

Health prevention. Others will push for more money to be put in preventive health programs. Efforts could be fueled by boosting the 7-cent-per-pack cigarette tax, which is the second lowest in the nation.

"We should continue being more proactive in spending dollars in areas of health care that point to prevention and screening programs for cancer, kidney disease and other illnesses," said Rep. David Mack, a Charleston Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Workers' comp. House lawmakers also may push a new initiative to revamp the state workers' compensation laws, which could cause another clash between lawyers and big business.


RECENT COMMENTARY


McLEMORE'S WORLD
6/12: New conservation measure by airlines?

Another great cartoon by Bill McLemore:


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FEEDBACK

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KEEPING TRACK
Two months early on judicial diversity report

This section tracks past forecasts by Statehouse Report with other media reports:

In Statehouse Report:

4/8/05: Judicial report on the way: "Lawmakers and the public should be on the lookout for a new analytical report by the Senate Judiciary Committee that will highlight judicial screening results over the last 30 years.'

NOTE: This story was for paid subscribers only, which shows the added benefit of subscribing.

In The State and other papers:

6/7/05: Reforms fail to add blacks to bench. "Black candidates are far less likely than whites to be elected in judicial races, despite reforms enacted eight years ago aimed at improving diversity, a legislative study has found."


SOUTH CAROLINA SCORECARD

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political events from the past week:

Thumbs up

Patients. With a new law on the books requiring doctors to wear identification, patients can rest a little easier.

Minibottles. They'll soon be history. On Jan. 1, bars and restaurants can start pouring from big bottles.

Thumbs down

DHEC. The department reportedly only has enough money to send inspectors to restaurants twice a year, instead of four times a year as is the national average. After the sickening and deadly outbreak of salmonella in a Camden restaurant, the agency and lawmakers might want to think about reorganizing priorities.

Sanford. Again, the governor makes the list. First, he gets thumbs down for exploiting the lackluster way he made a decision about the seatbelt bill, which became law without his signature. Why can't he just make a decision instead of grousing left and right? Second, he vetoed a Pee Dee trails project, which rightly incurred the wrath of Sen. Hugh Leatherman.

Covington. The highway department lobbyist should stick to lobbying, not songwriting (although we know a lot of people who would agree with his musical characterization of the governor.)

Ethics Commission. The commission says that online contributions might not be ready until after the 2006 election. Come on guys. It's not that tough to program -- just find a state that's already done it and move forward. The people need to know who gives to candidates.


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