S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Jan. 8, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.0108.invest.htm

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Look for Andy Brack's weekly Statehouse Report commentary soon in the new Columbia City Paper.

Investing in what's best for South Carolina
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JAN. 8, 2006 - - If state lawmakers about to head to Columbia were to forget politics and consider what two things they could do to best help people across the state, they might reach the following conclusion:

The state's lowest-in-the-country cigarette tax is a missed revenue opportunity that could pay for serious improvements for education, curb smoking and improve the health of South Carolinians. By raising the tax which is painless for three out of four state residents, there would be more than enough money to fund free pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds across the state.

Yes, these may be radical ideas for the Palmetto State. Yes, there would be a hike in a "sin" tax. Yes, controversy would arise. But these connected policy options are the right things to do. South Carolina's children are worth earlier educational intervention. A new investment will have long-term dividends, such as cutting the youth smoking rate and generating children who are better prepared to learn and who have access to more educational tools than today.

A few facts may help you reach a similar conclusion.


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Cigarette taxes. When North Carolina raised its cigarette taxes last year, South Carolina became home to the lowest rate in the country - - 7 cents per pack. Polls show most people don't object to raising the tax to about $1 per pack to help curb smoking and improve health, according to Nancy Cheney of the American Cancer Society in Columbia.

If the state raised the tax to $1 per pack, it could expect to generate $223 million to $300 million in revenue, according to state and ACS figures. If it raised the tax to the Southeastern average of 35.6 cents per pack, it could generate about $95 million in additional revenue.

But raising the tax also would, perhaps more importantly, have major health benefits. The ACS says increasing cigarette taxes by 93 cents would likely cause youth smoking to drop by 18.8 percent, which would result in 57,500 fewer youth smokers and 40,000 fewer adult smokers. Even more surprisingly, long-term health savings could approach $1 billion, according to the ACS.

"Treatment costs for tobacco-related disease in South Carolina were $862 million in 2005 of which the state Medicaid program paid over $300 million and every SC household, smoking or not, paid $545 to cover costs," an ACS briefing paper says.

Earlier kindergarten. Of the approximately 56,000 4-year-olds in South Carolina, about 31,400 children are considered "at risk" because their families are in economic circumstances that qualify them for free or reduced-price meals at schools, according to the state Department of Education. Almost 18,000 of these children are in some kind of government-funded pre-kindergarten program, but 13,635 children are in no program.

A couple of proposals are floating around to fund full-day education for 4-year-olds. To pay for a pre-kindergarten program for the 13,635 at-risk kids in no program, the state would have to commit to a $50 million recurring cost. State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum has been working on developing such a program, in coordination with private day care providers, faith-based organizations and the public school system, for several months, spokesman Jim Foster said.

Just this week, two leading Democratic lawmakers proposed a broader initiative that would provide kindergarten and early childhood education for all of the state's 4-year-olds. The proposal by Sen. Joel Lourie and Rep. James Smith, both from Columbia, would cost about $100 million annually.

"It's immeasurable what this would mean in South Carolina for this generation of pre-schoolers," Lourie said.

It's clear from a recent state court decision by Judge Thomas Cooper that more needs to be done to improve early childhood education in the state. In a decision at the end of 2005, Cooper essentially ruled that the state has not provided a "minimally adequate education" to children living in poverty. Despite evidence of crumbling facilities and the need for better teachers in poor school districts, the judge surprisingly ruled the state provided safe facilities and "minimally competent teachers."

Nevertheless, it was pretty clear last year that lawmakers thought Cooper would issue a much tougher ruling that would cost the state upwards of a billion dollars for educational improvements.

Now with Cooper's decision focusing on early childhood education, the least lawmakers can do is fund a universal pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds for $100 million - - almost exactly the cost of raising cigarette taxes to the Southeastern average.

lighter side
1/8: Bowled over

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:

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1/1: Public smoking prohibitions needed

To the editor:

I read the Statehouse Report for April 17, 2005 by Andy Brack. Still find it hard to believe that nothing has been done to stop people from smoking in bars and restaurants in this State. South Carolina will probably the last state in the lower 48 to create a policy about stopping people from smoking where food and drinks are served.

I watch on the news, go to other states, talk to non-smokers, and I hear it over and over again that smoking should be banned in bars and restaurants. There in nothing worse than sitting in a restaurant and tying to eat your dinner when someone starts smoking. You have your smoking and non-smoking areas but smoke does not stop when it reaches the nonsmoking section. Don’t care if the ventilation system is the best possible unit, you still smell the smoke.

The way health care costs are soaring, nothing is being done to stop people from smoking in bars and restaurants. I hear talk about bars and restaurants loosing money if people can’t smoke in their businesses. What about the countless nonsmokers who do not go to these businesses because of the smoke. There are a whole lot more nonsmokers then smokers in this country, do the math please.

I try so hard to lead a healthy life style, eat right, exercise, and not smoke. But, when I go out and have to inhale second hand smoke, something is wrong with out policy makers. You do not have to stop people from smoking in homes but help those who want to go out at night and not inhale second hand smoke.

-- Name withheld upon request, Elgin, SC

12/29: Drivers are only part of the problem

What's going on with Statehouse Report? You are putting the burden of dangerous road exclusively to the driver. (Commentary, 12/25) What about road designers and truck safety engineers?

Here is a recent example seen by the undersigned at the Blythewood exit at 6 AM. Four trucks going to the nearby factories are stopped at the exit taking its full length. The first trailer stops at the stop sign and the three behind come to a complete stand still. An SUV exits the highway at 55 mph+ and does not see that the mass of steel in front of him does not move. A loud bang occurs that could have been avoided if trucks at a standstill would have a sort of flash light alerting the driver they do not move.

And what about tire designers? Saw a pick up truck with emergency lights on at 6:15 AM on the 77. Slowed down to avoid by a fraction of inches hitting a huge trailer loose truck that was dark in the middle of the highway. Could not they design such tires with fluorescent material. To think that only drivers cause accidents is just seeing 25% of the problems.

-- Philippe Felsenhardt, Columbia, SC

Recent feedback:


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

Thumbs up

Property taxation. Hats off to individual taxpayers (pro) and to local governments and businesses (con) for stirring the General Assembly to action on property taxation, whether any of the pending plans is the right one.

Cobb-Hunter. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg firmly spoke her views this week, especially to improve poverty levels by paying state workers more, utilizing a state commission to recommend non-executive pay levels much as is done for teachers and for department heads.

In the middle

Sanford. Gov. Mark Sanford's executive budget proposal to refund $150 from the state in exchange for a 5.5 percent cap on spending to the``average family'' in South Carolina is being received as a partly cloudy, partly sunny proposal. Some legislative leaders say they are willing to consider, and possibly endorse, the governor's proposals, but other Republicans refuse to endorse the tax refund as being too little to matter. Some others, however, point out that $150 is no small sum to poor people whose heating bills, among other things, are difficult to pay. And there is the matter of the total of $151 million in tax refunds as proposed.

Thumbs down

Sen. Vincent Sheheen. The Camden Democrat told a reporter in Columbia he does not believe ``home rule'' will prove a constitutional issue in property tax reform, said, ``We make [propose] the Constitution up here.'' Already, the Senate is proposing constitutional issues to counter those being raised by counties and others. The voters have to approve any constitutional issues but the issues must be proposed by the legislators. And the voters were those who prompted property relief.


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