Pot sales derided, but other tax hikes on table, Democrats say in Superintendent debate

05/22/2014 10:14 PM

05/22/2014 10:28 PM

Democrat Sheila Gallagher did not back off her proposal Thursday that S.C. voters should be asked whether they favor legalizing marijuana and using the tax revenue from pot sales to help pay for schools.

But that position – revisited during a televised debate – found no support among the three other Democratic candidates for state superintendent of education.

Instead, the Democratic candidates suggested raising other taxes to pay for S.C. schools.

The candidates debated issues from funding to whether South Carolina’s schools chief should be elected – yes, they all said – during the debate, the first in a series of five hosted by ETV and seven newspapers, including The State, among candidates on the June 10 primary ballot.

The proposal by Gallagher of Florence, a former president of the S.C. Education Association, that the state could legalize and tax pot drew rebukes from her Democratic opponents.

“I can’t vision having a situation here in South Carolina where we say, ‘Buy marijuana so we can have high-quality schools,’ ” said former S.C. State executive Tom Thompson of Forest Acres. “That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

State Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, pointedly called marijuana a gateway drug and said education should not be paid for by “sin” taxes.

Montrio Belton, a former state Education Department official from Fort Mill, said he could not tell his third-grade son to take part in drug-free events in school and, then, tell him that he should start smoking marijuana to pay for public schools when he turns 18. He also said taxing marijuana would create another unstable funding source, based on how much marijuana is used, for education.

However, other methods should be looked at to increase school funding, the candidates agreed.

Thompson suggested adding another 2 cents on the dollar to the state’s sales taxes.

Gallagher suggested eliminating some state tax breaks, such as the $300 maximum sales tax now levied on vehicles. Taxes should be looked at like tithing to a church, she said. “Our taxes are a tithing to our communities.”

Belton suggested simplifying the complicated funding formulas that are used to determine how much money should go toward education.

Govan criticized the Legislature’s passage of Act 388 in 2006, which eliminated most residential property taxes for schools, and increased the state’s sales tax. Govan said he fought against Act 388.

The candidates also discussed how they would address failing schools.

Belton suggested immediately offering other public school choices to parents whose children attend bad schools.

Thompson said schools are being underserviced by the state Department of Education, adding there is no relationship between current Republican Superintendent Mick Zais, who is not seeking re-election, and district superintendents and principals. A collaborative approach would address failing schools, he said.

Gallagher, who emphasized the importance of quality after-school programs, said parents and communities must be engaged in failing schools.

Govan said assigning letter grades to schools and declaring them failures is not the solution, adding the state is not doing its part to support schools financially.

The eight Republican candidates for superintendent will debate Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ETV.

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