Scoppe: Legislature assaulting, shortchanging local governments, again

Associate EditorMarch 10, 2014 

Cindi Scoppe

Columbia, SC

THE BUDGET the House is debating this week shortchanges city and county governments.

Again.

This isn’t a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of law. State law requires that cities and counties receive 4.5 percent of the general fund revenues collected the previous year, to help pay for the many state services that state law requires those governments to provide, from running the state’s elections to paying for magistrates and even the Circuit Courts. Local officials argue that the formula always shortchanged them, but lawmakers haven’t even met the formula requirement since 2008.

The budget proposed by the House Ways and Means Committee allocates the same amount of money to the fund — $212 million — that was allocated for this year. And last year. So to many legislators, the fund is fully funded. What they overlook is that the amount is supposed to go up every year, at the same rate as the state budget, but it’s not doing that. What they overlook is that $212 million is just 74 percent of the $288 million that state law requires. That’s the lowest percent the allocation has reached since at least 1991. Worse even than at the depth of the recession.

It’s true that the local government formula is overdue for an overhaul. Particularly the part that props up enclaves of anti-communitarians who form towns that provide few or no services, for the purpose of protecting themselves from being annexed into real towns. Those anti-towns get as much money per resident to not provide services as real towns get per resident to provide services. Subsidizing such behavior is just one of many ways our Legislature makes it difficult for cities to grow to include the urbanized population that surrounds them and uses their services, largely without paying for those services.

Unfortunately, ending the anti-town subsidy is not why some legislators want to change the formula; they just want to reduce their financial obligation, without reducing the mandates they place on cities and counties. Perhaps that’s less bad than just suspending the law every year, knowing full well that they never intend to obey it again. But as long as the law is on the books, they need to obey it.

To add insult to the injury of underfunding, the Ways and Means budget again assaults local autonomy, with a proviso that prohibits local governments from passing along the processing fees to people who pay local taxes by credit card. The state Association of Counties says 40 of the 46 counties would be affected by the prohibition, which it calls “a mandated property tax increase forced on property taxpayers by the legislature,” which would force “taxpayers not using a credit card to subsidize those taxpayers using a credit card.”

The prohibition might not be so bad if it were up to local governments whether to allow taxpayers the convenience of paying their taxes by credit card. But the proviso — a one-year law that is much easier to pass than a normal law, because it’s part of the budget — requires those that offer that convenience this year to continue to offer it, even though they will have to pay to do so. So it’s less a prohibition on fees than a mandate to pay taxpayers’ fees for them. Any city or county that charges the fee anyway would get its state funding docked by the amount it collects.

That would be its state funding that already is being docked by a quarter.

This proviso may be less burdensome than what often faces cities and counties at this point in the budget process, and though they’re taking a bigger funding hit every year, they’ve come to expect being shortchanged, and have learned to live with it. So the temptation is great to not even mention the legislative maltreatment.

The temptation is misguided.

The fact that someone starts punching you in the stomach with his bare fist when he used to use brass knuckles doesn’t make it any less an assault. Or any less unacceptable.

The fact is that our Legislature never has respected cities and counties. For that matter, it never has respected anyone other than itself. Its refusal to let the people who are elected to run their cities and counties actually run their cities and counties is part and parcel with its refusal to let S.C. governors run the executive branch of government like their counterparts in 49 states.

If the Legislature is going to shortchange local governments the money the Legislature has decided it owes those local governments to provide the services that it requires them to provide, then the Legislature ought to suspend the law that prohibits cities and counties from raising taxes enough to pay for all the services that their constituents want them to provide. Better yet, that law ought to be repealed. Local voters have demonstrated time and time again that they’re perfectly capable of ousting local officials who tax them too much — far more able than they are of ousting legislators who shortchange them on services that they demand.

Our legislators passed the law limiting local governments’ taxing authority, along with all sorts of other laws that tell local governments what they can and can’t do, because they are convinced that they know better how to run local governments than the people who are elected to run local governments.

They need to get over that notion, because they have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not. For evidence of that, I offer just nine words: The Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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