- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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Jan. 28

The Herald, Rock Hill, South Carolina, on Haley’s road plans:

We’re gratified that Gov. Nikki Haley finally has put a higher state gasoline tax on the table as part of the solution for fixing deteriorating roads and bridges. Unfortunately, the proposed trade-off - cutting individual income taxes by 2 percent - is something of a bait-and-switch that would more than negate any benefits gained from raising the gas tax.



Haley said in her State of the State address last week that she’d support raising the gas tax by 10 cents, to 26 cents per gallon, over three years. In the past she has threatened to veto any increase in the gas tax.

But the offer came with two demands: Cut the top income tax bracket by 2 percentage points and get rid of the Department of Transportation’s commissioners, who are elected by the Legislature. Eliminating the commission is a step in the right direction, but the math isn’t promising on the rest of Haley’s plan.

The higher gas tax, along with $61 million diverted from the state sales tax on vehicles, would generate about $400 million annually once the tax is fully implemented in three years.

By contrast, state economic advisers predict that her plan to cut the income tax would reduce general fund revenues by $1.8 billion a year once the 10-year phase-in is in place. In the first year of the phase-in, the state would receive $119 million less, but Haley made no cuts in her $6.9 billion budget plan to account for that decrease.

Haley’s proposal assumes that the state can make up for reduced income tax revenues with population growth and increased economic activity resulting from the tax cut. It’s basically the old theory that tax cuts always stimulate growth.

But the governor also has proposed higher spending on much-needed caseworkers for the Department of Social Services, more parole officers and education, including incentives for teachers to move to rural schools in the state’s poor districts. The Legislature also must respond to the state Supreme Court’s mandate to ensure that every student in the state has access to a good education.

What programs would she cut to make up for the net loss in income tax revenues? If she believes there is wasteful spending to be trimmed, it isn’t evident in her proposed budget.

The income tax cut also would not benefit more than 1 million taxpayers who currently pay no income tax, many of whom are retirees living on fixed incomes. And those with taxable income of $30,000-$40,000 a year would gain less than $1,000 a year from the tax cut.

But those taxpayers would share the burden of a higher gas tax.

While a higher gas tax combined with annual transfers from the vehicle sales tax would produce roughly $400 million a year, DOT officials estimate that the state would need nearly $1.5 billion a year for the next 10 years to bring roads to good condition. Haley’s plan doesn’t begin to address the problem.

No one believes that increasing the gas tax alone is the solution to the state’s road problems. But a minimal gas tax increase coupled with a massive income tax cut is not the formula for meeting the state’s needs - not only fixing its roads but also coping with growing needs for social services and improving education.

It is promising that Haley has relented on her threat to veto any gas tax increase. Maybe that will free lawmakers to include an increase in whatever road plan they develop.

But residents have been waiting a long time - including an entire campaign season - for Haley’s promised road plan. We’re still waiting for a realistic proposal from the governor.

Online:

https://www.heraldonline.com

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Jan. 28

Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina, on fixing schools:

Plenty of obstacles stand in the way of improving schools in the state’s poor, rural districts, but in November the S.C. Supreme Court said that the Legislature and the districts must work together to get over them.

On Monday, the court eliminated one big distraction in that process, as it rejected an appeal by state leaders to rehear the case.

Now it’s time for legislative leaders to get down to the business of addressing the shameful situation.

Several reform efforts already are under way. Gov. Nikki Haley has included money in her budget to recruit teachers to rural districts that are failing. She also wants to expand a program that coaches children in reading, and to devote $29.3 million for technology.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, has established a task force of lawmakers, business leaders and educators to evaluate reforms. Included are representatives of the districts named in the lawsuit.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, also formed a committee, to be chaired by Sens. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, and Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia.

Sadly, neither committee is expected to come up with a comprehensive solution any time soon. And that means the inadequate school transportation, unprepared teachers and substandard education in “educational ghettos” that the Supreme Court decision targets will have to wait.

Educators from the rural districts must also play a big part in the conversation, not just because doing so could help their students but because the Supreme Court so ordered it. The court was critical of school officials as well as the Legislature, saying they have spent money unwisely on administration rather than instruction, on athletic facilities rather than academic enhancements. It also chided small districts for simply blaming the state without exploring on their own such options as consolidation to reduce administrative costs.

The Supreme Court took a stunning 21 years to rule on the case. The plan prescribed by the court needs to be completed with reasonable dispatch.

Meanwhile limited reforms like those proposed by the governor should be implemented in the next school year. Indeed, all involved should be looking for measures that can start giving rural students better access to an adequate education even before the comprehensive plan is completed.

Online:

https://www.postandcourier.com

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Jan. 28

Times and Democrat, Orangeburg, South Carolina, on FOIA reform study:

State officials make lofty promises when it comes to ethics in government. They tout the transparency of legislative processes, accessibility of records and the openness of public meetings. But these efforts often fall short of providing any real transparency or legitimate hope of rooting out corruption.

That’s the depressing bottom line that emerges from the State Integrity Investigation, a first-of-its-kind, data-driven assessment of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states. Not a single state - not one - earned an A grade from the months-long probe by The Center for Public Integrity founded in 1989 by Charles Lewis.

Only five states earned a B grade - New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska - from the project, which is a collaboration of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

Among the eight states with Fs is South Carolina, which earned a score of B on lobbying disclosure, B- on procurement, C+ on internal auditing, D- on political financing and F on ethics enforcement agencies, state budget processes, legislative accountability, state insurance commissions, state pension fund management, state civil service management, judicial accountability, executive accountability and public access to information.

What’s behind the dismal grades? According to the Center for Public Integrity, the answer is that across the board, state ethics, open records and disclosure laws lack a key feature: teeth.

Addressing that issue with regard to ethics laws is a state priority of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and key legislators in 2015. Plans in both the House and Senate to allow independent review of accusations against lawmakers are on the table again and appear to have a better chance than ever of advancing in light of the corruption case of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

But when it comes to across-the-board improvements, as important as any ethics reform legislation is a pending bill that strengthens the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The law has taken hits in recent years in the form of court rulings sealing autopsy reports and removing the requirement that a public body operate in public according to a preannounced agenda.

Nothing will ensure better government more than open government. Shining the light of public oversight on politicians and public officials is an amazing elixir for what ails government here or anywhere.

And if lawmakers are looking for reinforcement of the need the strengthen FOIA, we hope they will consider details in the Center for Public Integrity’s rating of South Carolina in the category of access to public information:

Do citizens have a legal right of access to information? South Carolina scored 25 percent. To go along with a score of a 100 percent rating on citizens’ legal right to government information and records is the practical nature of exercising the right. The state had scores of 0 on the right to appeal if a record is denied, absence of a government institutional mechanism through which citizens can request government records and the absence of an agency or entity that monitors the application of access to information laws and regulations.

Is the right of access to information effective? South Carolina scored 19 percent with grades of 0 on citizens’ ability to resolve appeals in a reasonable period time and at a reasonable cost, and the absence of any agency to investigate denial of public information and impose penalties. The state’s highest marks (50) came in the quality of responses to FOIA requests and offering reasons for denying an information request.

Online:

https://thetandd.com

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