- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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Nov. 23

The Post and Courier of Charleston on state tax refunds:

This time the tax collector really is bringing good news. South Carolina will reduce the amount it withholds from residents’ paychecks.

Many people have had the same experience: At tax time, they owe more federal income taxes, but get refunds from the state.

The refunds are nice, but they also represent taxpayers’ money that South Carolina has been enjoying interest-free.

It’s past time for that to change. State tax rates have not changed in 25 years despite changes to federal tax laws.

So in January of 2017, the Department of Revenue will begin reducing the amount it withholds from workers during the year.

The State newspaper reports that, at first, the change will be relatively small - $73 for a married couple filing jointly with two children and a combined taxable income of at least $10,000.

But in five years, that $75 will increase to $365, and five years after that, to $730.

Those are averages. Amounts will change with taxpayers’ exemptions and marital status. Those who will benefit the most will be taxpayers who are in lower income brackets, married and/or with children.

Of course, that good news also means people will not be receiving the fat refunds they had been accustomed to. And it means that the state’s revenues will drop, but only temporarily.

Still, it is only right that the DOR is acknowledging that South Carolina should not be requiring taxpayers to provide the state interest-free, short-term loans.

There is a possible bonus to the state for doing the responsible thing: The Revenue Department might save some money since staff will have fewer refunds to process.

And then there is the extra $1.2 billion that the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors expects in state coffers for the 2016-17 budget year.

While lawmakers will certainly have their eye on it for special projects - road repairs, schools and farmers - surely some could cover the small shortfall that will result from the withholding changes.

State income taxes are a fact of life, and despite the clamor of anti-tax groups, they aren’t going away any time soon. Nevertheless, it remains painful for wage earners to see a chunk of their paychecks disappear into the state Treasury every week or two.

They can feel a little better knowing that this time the tax collector is looking out for them.

Online:

https://www.postandcourier.com/

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Nov. 22

The Greenville News on state’s report card for government ethics laws:

No parents should settle for a D-minus on their child’s report card, not if they have hopes of that child succeeding not just in that class but in the world that lies before him or her.

Yet South Carolina lawmakers have seemed perfectly content with scores consistently that low - or lower - on the report card for government ethics laws. It’s inexcusable. The state ranked 36th among the 50 states in a report that demonstrated most states have room to improve their ethics laws. The highest grade given was a C.

Sure our state’s grade is up from an ‘F’ the year before on the Center for Public Integrity report, but that’s no thanks to any meaningful reform here.

For three years running, the South Carolina Legislature has stubbornly refused to hold itself accountable by passing ethics reform with any teeth. It consistently tries to weaken tough reforms, limit who can hold lawmakers accountable or simply refuse to be governed.

Why would it reform ethics laws, when the report calls state ethics laws a “Wild West” of loose laws and accountability where elected officials can do what they want with virtual impunity.

The report said South Carolina has a high “enforcement gap” between its ethics laws and how they are carried out; that it discourages citizens from requesting public information by charging excessive fees or threatening to punish people who make “excessive” requests; and that it has too much in unregulated political contributions.

We have frequently weighed in on these failures, and will again and again until they are fixed.

One of the most significant shortcomings in the state’s ethics laws is that legislators are accountable only to themselves. Last session, senators killed a bill that would have created an independent body to investigate ethics complaints against both houses, saying it was the House that had the ethics problem.

Such logic defies understanding. The Senate is not uniquely able to police its own ethics. It only makes sense that a body with no ties to the Legislature would be able to better investigate complaints in both houses. A system where lawmakers judge themselves is fertile ground for favoritism and manipulation.

Also on the priority list for the upcoming session should be a requirement that legislators fully disclose all the sources of their personal income. Taxpayers need to know who is paying elected leaders and how that might affect their votes.

These loose ethics laws are breeding some serious problems. Among the ethics investigations in the state:

Lt. Gov. Ken Ard was indicted on seven counts of ethics violations related to his 2010 campaign and resigned in 2012. According to the investigation, he used campaign money for football tickets, clothes and a flat-screen TV. He also funneled more than $150,000 in his own money to his campaign, apparently to make his bid for lieutenant governor appear stronger.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell was indicted in September 2014 on ethics charges. Prosecutors accused Harrell of using campaign funds on his private airplane, personal travel or for goods or services for friends and family. He was sentenced to six years in prison, which was suspended to three years of probation.

Former state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston pleaded guilty in January to misconduct in office, forgery and two counts of ethics violations. Prosecutors alleged that Ford committed 350 ethics violations including converting campaign funds for personal use.

The list goes on. It’s a roll call that should embarrass South Carolina lawmakers enough to tighten up what people around the country recognize as a bad system.

Upstate Sen. Larry Martin has been a leader in the push for ethics reform. He and Gov. Nikki Haley and others need to continue to put pressure on our state’s elected leaders so meaningful ethics reform is passed early in the upcoming session.

As Chaney Adams, a spokeswoman for Gov. Nikki Haley said in a recent Greenville News report, “It’s time to finish the job, no more excuses.”

Let’s hope that message sinks in.

Online:

https://www.greenvilleonline.com/

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Nov. 18

The Island Packet of Hilton Head on environmental protection along the South Carolina coast:

A court ruling in Columbia last week could spell trouble for environmental protection all along the South Carolina coast.

A decision by Chief Administrative Law Judge Ralph King Anderson III would enable developers to build a half-mile long, steel sheet pile wall, road, sewer lines and water lines to a spit of shifting sand south of Kiawah Island.

In doing so, the court lifted an “automatic stay” to halt this foolishness while it is being challenged in court.

It only makes sense to hold off on harmful development that may not, in the end, be permitted. Why ruin the environment, only to find out later that it should not have been done? It makes no sense.

“The (decision) flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling recognizing that development interests cannot outweigh the public’s interest in protection of South Carolina’s iconic landscapes,” said Amy Armstrong of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, which is challenging development of Captain Sams Spit.

Conservationists filed an emergency appeal directly to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which will hopefully restore common sense to what has been a six-year legal wrangle over plans to put 50 homes on a volatile strip of sand.

Also, the Coastal Conservation League is circulating online a petition asking Gov. Nikki Haley to permanently protect Captain Sams Spit.

“Captain Sams Spit is one of only three remaining publicly accessible, undeveloped barrier island spits in the state,” the Coastal Conservation League says. “It is a critically important public trust resource providing habitat to a variety of rare, threatened and endangered species.”

The “automatic stay” is desperately needed in the Lowcountry, which is rapidly being paved over. Yet the “automatic stay” also is under fire in the legislature. Some legislators want to eliminate it by law, thus trumping due process and paving the way for foolish development in all the wrong places.

We urge the public to support the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and the Coastal Conservation League in this fight and the subsequent fight in the legislature. We urge Beaufort County residents to make it clear to local legislators that the “automatic stay” and due process in court are vital to our economy and way of life.

Online:

https://www.islandpacket.com/

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