- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:


March 15

The Post and Courier of Charleston on drilling off the coast of South Carolina:

The democratic process isn’t perfect - witness the rise of blowhard Donald Trump in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

But sometimes democracy works just as it should to express the will of the people. Certainly that’s what occurred when the Obama administration decided to abandon plans to open the South Carolina coast to offshore drilling.

Over the past year, the people of coastal South Carolina have spoken nearly as one, through their elected town and county councils, against offshore drilling. Local jurisdictions from Hilton Head to North Myrtle Beach joined the campaign as they independently weighed the risks. Locally, the opposition ranged from Edisto Beach to McClellanville, with virtually every community, large and small, joining in.

And they were backed by all three coastal representatives in the U.S. House. Indeed, two congressmen - 1st District Rep. Mark Sanford and 7th District Rep. Tom Rice, both Republicans - took a stance after considering the local opposition to the plan. In doing so, they joined 6th District Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat.

On Tuesday, officials with the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management also recognized the broad public opposition in South Carolina and other Atlantic coastal states as they cancelled a proposal to allow the exploration for oil and natural gas deposits, preparatory to their extraction.

The federal decision means that the long-standing moratorium on offshore oil drilling along the coasts of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia will continue, despite the best efforts of the oil industry to force a change.

A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute declared that the administration’s decision “appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production which would increase the cost of energy for American consumers and close the door for years to creating new jobs, new investments and boosting energy security.”

To the contrary, federal officials listened to the unified voice of coastal citizens and their representatives and made their decision accordingly.

If that’s surprising to Big Oil, it’s only because the industry so often gets its way.

Simply put, coastal communities made a compelling case against opening up the region to offshore drilling.

Tourism is the economic lifeblood of the S.C. coast, and offshore drilling threatens the quality of our beaches and natural resources. Marine life would also be at risk during the exploration process, which uses loud underwater seismic air guns to determine whether natural gas and oil might be present.

Wildlife advocates and environmental organizations and their grass-roots counterparts deserve credit for helping to educate coastal communities about the potential ill-effects of offshore drilling on marine resources.

The campaign against offshore drilling was a wide-ranging, bipartisan effort.

What stands out most is the support given by local elected officials to a public opposing an industry-backed plan that appeared to have every chance of being rubber-stamped by the bureaucracy.

Let’s hear it for real representative government.




March 12

The Island Packet of Hilton Head on public access to information:

A recent court ruling is a step in the right direction for increasing transparency.

But the case needs a vetting before the S.C. Supreme Court for the important issues it raises to be settled once and for all.

At issue is Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles’ ruling last month that Skip Hoagland, a longtime, vocal critic of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, is allowed access to various chamber documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Because the chamber receives accommodations taxes - revenues generated from overnight lodging - it is a public body and must comply with the law, ruled Nettles.

The Freedom of Information Act states that an entity supported “in whole or in part by public funds” is subject to the law. A 1991 Supreme Court ruling confirmed that.

The nonprofit chamber plans to appeal the ruling. Its attorneys have said that even though the chamber is the designated marketing organization for the Town of Hilton Head Island, it is not a public body. Rather, they say, it is a private nonprofit organization, exempt from releasing documents that Hoagland and others have requested. They add that the chamber has released documents that show how accommodations-tax dollars were spent.

But they have denied Hoagland’s request for all accounts, vouchers and contracts dealing with the receipt or spending of public money. This newspaper has also made a request to the chamber that was denied - a list of contractors and organizations paid by the chamber for goods and services, employees’ pay and its revenue sources.

To date, the lower courts have not brought clarity to whether chambers are public bodies and what limitations should be placed on the Freedom of Information Act. Individual judges in different parts of the state have reached very different conclusions on the matters.

It’s time for the S.C. Supreme Court to step in and have the final say.

A recent opinion by the high court gives some insight into the justices’ thinking on the topic. In 2013, it rejected an argument, presented by the S.C. School Administrators Association, that requiring nonprofits to comply with the Freedom of Information Act violated their First Amendment rights.

This might be a good omen for Hoagland’s lawsuit, which could be headed to the high court as well. The chamber’s lawyer, Bobby Stepp of Columbia, has said he will ask the state Supreme Court to bypass the Court of Appeals and take up the case to expedite it.

We still hold out hope that the justices will be faithful to the stated goal of the law and require the release of all documents that show how public dollars are used.




March 8

The Greenville News on South Carolina’s tobacco tax:

A recent survey by the South Carolina Tobacco-Free Collaborative shows broad support for another increase in the state’s cigarette tax, with 73 percent of those surveyed favoring an increase.

Generally it would be considered onerous to enact a significant tax increase on a product so close on the heels of a previous one (the state raised its cigarette tax by 50 cents in 2010). However, tobacco is a special case.

Study after study show increases in the tax on tobacco products directly lead to a reduction in the use of those products. For example, between 2011 and 2013 - the years immediately following South Carolina’s cigarette tax increase - smoking among students declined by 23.7 percent. Research also is clear that tobacco products cause deadly health problems that exact a significant human and financial toll. Thus, raising the tobacco tax to reduce use and those deadly costs makes sense.

South Carolina’s current cigarette tax is 57 cents. It ranks 44th in the nation. By contrast, 32 states have a tax of at least $1 a pack, 15 states have a tax of at least $2 a pack, and another nine states tax cigarettes at least $3 a pack, according to a recent report by Greenville News health writer Liv Osby.

The sad history of South Carolina’s cigarette tax is even more troubling when we recall that before 2010 the cigarette tax here was a paltry 7 cents a pack. A long battle was fought to obtain the 50-cent increase that was well overdue.

It is no wonder South Carolina struggles with tobacco use and the health problems that go with it.

Given the obvious benefits of an increase in the tobacco tax and given the broad support for a tax increase, we urge the Tobacco-Free Collaborative to continue pressing for another increase to this tax. We also urge lawmakers to give the proposals a fair hearing at the appropriate time. This is not an idea that should be dismissed out of hand simply because it is a tax increase.

Yes, the argument will be made that the tobacco tax falls hardest on poor South Carolinians. They, after all, are the ones who tend to smoke and who can least afford an increase in the cost of tobacco products. However, they also are the ones who would benefit most from quitting smoking because of the costs of associated health problems.

If the idea comes to the Legislature there may also be calls to use the tax to reduce other taxes. This should go without saying, but a condition of any increase in the tobacco tax should be that the revenue generated from the increase be spent on health programs, particularly those health programs related to smoking cessation and the diseases most commonly caused by smoking. The only relief here should be from the damaging effects of tobacco use.

Our Legislature took a positive step in 2010 when it raised the tax by 50 cents. Though that was a bold step given how long it had been since the tax last was raised, it was a half-step. The Legislature could now go even further by increasing the tax to $1 per pack or more and using that funding to help address some very serious health needs in a state that often ranks near the bottom when it comes to good health.



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