- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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July 13

The Post and Courier of Charleston on the state’s low gas taxes:

The advantages of living in South Carolina include our pristine coast, often pleasant weather (though not necessarily in July) and mostly friendly people.

But before counting our state’s distinction of having the nation’s lowest gas prices last week as an untainted benefit, consider a contributing - and ultimately self-defeating - factor in that illusory bargain.

While being No. 1 in cheap gas sounds positive, that status stems in large part from the overall negative - and perilous - policy of having one of the nation’s lowest gas taxes.

And despite continued common-sense appeals to finally raise that tax to address dangerous funding shortfalls in road maintenance and construction, the Republican-dominated General Assembly again refused this year to take that overdue course.

Thus, our state gas tax is stuck at its 1987 level. Thus, our state’s roads and bridges are still stuck in continuing decay.

According to a study last year by The Road Information Program (TRIP), a national transportation research organization, that deteriorating road system imposed annual additional expenses of $1,200 to the average S.C. driver.

The researchers who produced that report, “South Carolina Transportation by the Numbers: Meeting the State’s Need for Safe and Efficient Mobility,” found that 46 percent of our major roads and highways were in poor condition. This reflects a steep - and continuing - climb from the already-risky 32 percent level in 2008.

The TRIP study also documented that one-fifth of South Carolina’s bridges were “functionally obsolete.”

That alarming reality was reconfirmed when Tuesday’s Rock Hill Herald reported:

“Drivers heading from York and Chester counties to Union County on S.C. 9 and S.C. 49 will have to take a 35-mile detour for almost a month (starting next Monday) as the S.C. Department of Transportation makes repairs to a bridge crossing the Broad River at the small town of Lockhart.”

State Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said in a written statement: “This bridge is an example of the type of concerns that we have raised regarding the infrastructure crisis we are facing here in S.C. A long-term, sustainable funding solution must be found in order to address the years of deferred maintenance on the existing road and bridge network for our state.”

And the toll taken by our failing road system transcends financial measure. The TRIP study ranked South Carolina as tied with West Virginia for the highest overall traffic fatality rate in the nation. Analysts persuasively cite our bad roads as a crucial contributor to that deadly ranking.

Yes, last month state lawmakers did pass, and Gov. Nikki Haley did sign, a bill that will provide $2.2 billion in road funding over the next decade. But the bill relies on bonds - in other words, borrowing. And the amount of money coming, while significant, falls far short of covering the state’s infrastructure needs.

Meanwhile, a practical source of revenue remains untapped by a gas tax that’s no higher than it was way back when Ronald Reagan was still president.

That’s a foolishly stubborn manifestation of a knee-jerk, anti-tax mentality in a state where 30 percent of the gas tax - in effect, a user’s fee - is paid by non-residents.

So sure, at first glance it looks nice to have the nation’s lowest gas prices.

But look more closely, and you’ll see that it would be much nicer to have a safer, sufficient and sustainable state highway system.

Online:

https://www.postandcourier.com

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July 8

The Aiken Standard on farm aid:

The S.C. Department of Agriculture is trying to do what Nikki Haley would not - give state farmers a helping hand.

The crops and land devastated by the storms and flooding of October 2015 knocked the state’s farmers to the ground.

Haley, in her remarks after the 1,000-year flood ravaged South Carolina, said farmers would not be treated any differently than other state businesses. The problem with this thought process is farming is a different business than say, a hardware or sporting goods store. The farmers aren’t looking for any handouts.

That is not in their mindset. Farmers understand work. Farmers wrote the book on hard work, and it is on their backs that this country was built. They feed us, and it should mean something.

South Carolina’s farmers are merely looking for a hand up, and they’re about to get it.

Beginning July 1, farmers who suffered crop loss due to last year’s flooding could apply for South Carolina Farm Aid grants from the S.C. Department of Agriculture, or SCDA. The S.C. General Assembly approved $40 million in state aid to help farms in flood-ravaged communities. Farmers can receive grants covering 20 percent of their crop loss up to $100,000.

“The historic flood that hit South Carolina devastated many of the small farms across the rural areas of our state,” said Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers. “While this won’t make our farmers whole, we hope through this relief funding, they can begin to recover.”

That’s all farmers need, a little relief to recover. Not a handout, but a hand up.

It’s about time, and it’s a shame bureaucracy took this long to get the emergency relief funds rolling.

To be eligible for the grant, farmers must have experienced a verifiable loss of affected agricultural commodities of at least 40 percent as a result of the October 2015 flooding.

The flooding may have scraped the northern and eastern edge of Aiken County, but it was a deep scrape.

You only have to drive through the rural portion of Aiken County near Wagener and Salley to see the devastation ravaged by Mother Nature.

Farmers are the last people to look for a free ride. Farmers are up before the sun every day, 365 days a year. Crops and livestock don’t give weekends off.

“These funds are critical to our agricultural community,” said Clemson Extension Director Thomas Dobbins. “We will work directly with farmers throughout the application period to ensure this much-needed assistance is put to good use.”

Agribusiness is the state’s largest industry.

How can the governor say South Carolina is open for business when she closed the door on the state’s farmers? These grants will help ensure this industry’s continued strength and help rebuild what was lost last fall.

Area farmers can find apply at https:// agriculture.sc.gov/SC-farm-aid.

For more information about Farm Aid or to be put in contact with Farm Aid staff, call Megan Heidkamp with SCDA at 803-734-2210.

Online:

https://www.aikenstandard.com/

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July 7

The State of Columbia on South Carolina’s public education policy:

Could sanity finally be returning to South Carolina’s public education policy? Well, maybe that’s a stretch, but a small section in the state budget that took effect last week suggests movement in the right direction.

A proviso in the budget ends South Carolina’s ill-considered experiment with “scholarship-granting organizations” - the unaccountable, nonprofit organizations that the Legislature empowered with its 2013 plan to pay people to divert their tax dollars to private schools.

This is a smart change that could only be improved by eliminating the backdoor vouchers altogether, which steal public support and public funding from the public schools, possibly providing a better education to a small number of students, and possibly not. But at least we’re cutting out the state-created middle men, which had a clear financial stake in defending and expanding the tax-diversion scheme. So we’ll celebrate this as a very good start.

It never made sense to divert state tax money to private schools. But when the Legislature voted to do this on a limited scale, it compounded the error by using about the worst mechanism it could think of. Rather than simply providing vouchers to parents, it gave dollar-for-dollar tax credits to people who wanted their tax dollars to go to private schools rather than, say, public schools.

That practice is bad enough by itself, because it’s not like the traditional idea of giving people a much, much smaller tax deduction when they donate to a charity; this is telling people that instead of paying their taxes, they can use that money to support a political policy that the Legislature is not willing to fund openly and directly.

But the scheme the Legislature approved was even worse than its philosophical underpinnings, because it allowed unaccountable private organizations to determine which students would receive the “scholarships.”

We warned for years that this was not only bad public policy but an invitation to trouble, and the facts bore us out: Within a year, The State’s Jamie Self discovered that at least one of these “scholarship-granting organizations” was recruiting parents to have their taxes diverted with the implied promise that their children would receive scholarships in return. Never mind that it would be illegal to both accept the scholarship and claim the tax credit. When the Revenue Department refused to kick that organization out of the program, instead simply securing a promise that it would stop giving scholarships to donors, legislators wisely decided it was time to change the law.

Some parents might still try to double-dip under this new law - some people try to break every law there is, sometimes quite successfully. But state taxpayers will no longer be subsidizing organizations that actively encourage parents to violate the law.

A lot of public school supporters were willing to live with this tax-diversion program because it was limited to special-needs students. Some even argued that it could be less expensive for the state to provide subsidies for some children’s education than to provide an education to those children.

But the fact is that the private “choice” movement was never about helping special-needs students. Its leaders never hid the fact that they saw this as a camel’s nose under the tent, a mere first step toward forcing the taxpayers to pay for any student to attend unaccountable private schools. And frankly, that’s probably the best thing about the law the Legislature passed this year: It takes the wind out of that movement.

While there are a lot of parents who honestly believe their children would be better off attending a private school - and that the rest of us are somehow obliged to pay for their choice - those parents are not the people who convinced the Legislature to create the scholarship-granting organization scheme. And those parents never would have convinced the Legislature to expand this law to cover all children.

The Legislature passed this law because of the unrelenting lobbying and campaign donations and anonymous attack campaigns underwritten by organizations and individuals - mostly from outside of South Carolina - who had a philosophical or financial stake in our passing the law. And that makes it all the more extraordinary that the Legislature was willing to rein it in once it realized how out of control - and frankly, how uncontrollable - it is.

In a year when the Legislature often seemed determined to disappoint, this is one thing we can feel good about.

Online:

https://www.thestate.com/

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