Columbia, SC — BEST AS I can tell, I live about a half mile outside the Columbia city limits. I know this not because the community changes suddenly from urban to rural as I turn off the main road (in the city) onto the subdivision road (outside the city) on which my home is located. Rather, it’s by looking at the trash and recycling bins that my neighbors put out on the curb on trash day. In fact, on a couple of occasions when I’ve ridden my bicycle through the neighborhood on a trash-day morning, I’ve found myself weaving in and out of the city repeatedly, as I turn from street to street.
I’ve always considered this as a spectacular illustration of the crazy annexation laws in our state, which make it nearly impossible for cities to grow their boundaries to match the urban footprint, and which encourage the disorderly growth that we disdainfully refer to as sprawl, driving up taxpayer costs by forcing county governments to get into the provision of municipal services that they shouldn’t have to deal with.
What I didn’t realize, until just recently, was that my house’s location just outside the city limits acts as a magician, transforming me on a regular basis into a tourist in my own community.
When I have lunch in Five Points, I’m a tourist. When I go to dinner in the Vista, I’m a tourist. If I pick up a quick snack when I’m shopping in Harbison, I’m a tourist.
This magical metamorphosis isn’t confined to those of us who live in places that by all rights ought to be inside the city limits. Someone who lives in one of those cool new apartments in the Vista becomes a tourist if he drives across the Gervais Street bridge to have dinner on Meeting Street. A West Columbia resident who has lunch on Knox Abbott Drive in Cayce is a tourist. Ditto a Longcreek resident who dines at the Village at Sandhill.
This new understanding of tourism comes thanks to a truly bizarre provision that the Legislature slipped into the law in 2010, which defines a tourist as “a person who does not reside in but rather enters temporarily, for reasons of recreation or leisure, the jurisdictional boundaries of a municipality for a municipal project or the immediate area of the project for a county project.”
Don’t look for that definition in the dictionary. It is, at least for the moment, confined to the context of Article 7 of Chapter 1 of Title 6 of the S.C. Code of Laws, relating to spending the proceeds of the local hospitality, or restaurant, tax. Presumably the dictionary definition applies to Article 5 of Chapter 1 of Title 6, which spells out how proceeds can be spent from the local accommodations, or hotel, tax.
The cross-the-street tourism definition leads me to two conclusions:
First, our editorial board has been wrong — at least since 2010 — when we’ve castigated Richland County and Columbia and other local governments for skirting the law that requires them to use hospitality tax money on “tourist-related” expenditures.
By this definition, it’s probably legal for Richland County to throw hospitality tax money at an overgrown pond in Lower Richland that one council member has delusional plans of turning into a tourist mecca. It’s still a really bad idea, and if our lawmakers haven’t been able to amend the dictionary, you just might be able to find it there if you look up “wasteful spending,” but it appears to be legal.
Second, our Legislature is simply insane when it comes to manipulating tax law to accommodate legislators’ antipathy toward local government.
OK, so that’s not a revelation. But this is just one more example, in line with our Legislature’s refusal to let city and county councils set their tax rates as they see fit and its refusal to dismantle the special-purpose districts that impinge on orderly city growth and its insistence on continuing to appoint members of county governing boards.
This bizarre new definition of tourism actually looks like an attempt to give cities and counties a tiny bit of wiggle room without anyone realizing that was what was going on, because of course our Legislature wouldn’t knowingly go along with such a thing. That makes it sabotage, which isn’t acceptable even when it’s done with good intentions. Compounding the insult of sabotage, if that’s what it is, is this: The definition undermines the intent of the tourist-only law without actually fixing the problem with the tourist-only law.
The problem with the law isn’t that “tourism-related” projects have to relate to actual tourism. Indeed, the main reason Circuit Judge Alison Lee gave for rejecting a lawsuit last month that challenged Camden’s plans for spending its restaurant tax revenue was that the Legislature hadn’t bothered to define “tourism-related” projects, so it could include projects that are designed primarily for local residents but that might occasionally attract tourists.
No, the problem with the law is that it requires local governments to spend money on things that are nice to have but are not essential, even as essentials go wanting.
Imagine if the Congress passed a law that said state income taxes had to be spent on museums. Not that they could be spent on museums, which would be bad enough, but that they had to be.
Rewriting the definition of museums to include baseball parks would not solve the problem. The way to solve the problem would be to let state legislatures — whose members are elected to make decisions in their states — spend their income taxes they way they see fit.
The way to solve the problem with the local restaurant tax is to let city and county councils — whose members are elected to make decisions in their communities — spend the money the way they see fit.
If the voters don’t like those decisions, they’ll take care of it. And they’ll do it without rewriting the English language, or resorting to sabotage.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.