LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC — Anti-tax sentiment among voters paved the way for businessman Ned Tolar to win a showdown in a Republican runoff Tuesday, becoming the second new member of Lexington County Council.
The outcome probably ends the political career of veteran Councilman Bill Banning, a major player in Midlands economic development who held the post representing District 8 for 16 years.
Tolar won handily after championing opposition to an upcoming Nov. 4 countywide referendum on a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax that would pay for new roads and other improvements and promising to try to hold the line on other taxes.
“This vote is a moratorium on tax increases,” said Tolar, in his first run for political office.
His triumph is a troubling sign for supporters of the sales tax hike in a district where support is thought to be vital for its passage.
About $15 million in the $268.1 million package is earmarked for a dozen improvements in the area for roads, water and sewer upgrades, library renovations and two recreation paths along the lower Saluda River.
But some tax advocates cautioned Tuesday against reading too much into the outcome of a race in which personalities came into play as much as political outlook.
“We have a strong case to be made to the voters in the fall,” said Tiffany Boyce Heitzman, chief executive officer of the Greater Irmo Chamber of Commerce. “Our ability to provide safer roads, address congestion and improve our ability to expand economic development is simply bigger than one candidate or one campaign.”
Opponents of the sales tax were happy to take out one of its main backers.
Any tax hike is a difficult sell, but “beating this one is going to be easy,” said R.J. Shealy, political adviser to Tolar and others against the sales tax.
Tolar was the choice of voters in an area stretching from West Columbia across Oak Grove to the east side of Lexington and along part of the south shore of Lake Murray.
Banning took significant heat from anti-tax groups even though all nine council members favor the upcoming ballot to let residents decide on the tax. Supporters say the new tax is the only way to make long-delayed improvements happen.
Resentment at the tax referendum overshadowed Banning’s role in helping bring in hundreds of jobs by luring online retailer Amazon and Nephron Pharmaceuticals to open facilities in the county since 2011.
Banning said he fell victim to “the perfect storm” of anti-tax fervor and anti-incumbency fanned by anger over the indictment of longtime Sheriff James Metts last week for alleged misconduct in office.
Asked whether he will seek to return to politics, Banning said, “You never say never, but I’m done with County Council – that’s for sure.”
The loss in a council race was the second for Banning, who was upset in 2002 but reclaimed the post in 2006.
The runoff was necessary after no one in a three-candidate field at the June 10 primary election garnered more than 50 percent ballots cast. Banning finished first and Tolar second.
With no Democrat running at the Nov. 4 election, winning the runoff is tantamount to securing the post. New council members take office in early January.
Tolar, 69, is pledging to serve a maximum of eight years as a councilman and will promote term limits for its members and possibly other county officials.
About 12 percent of voters in the district – 1,958 of 16,144 eligible – went to the polls Tuesday.
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.