Cindi Ross Scoppe

How Jay Lucas is transforming the conversation in Columbia

Rep. Jay Lucas is sworn in as speaker of the SC House on Dec 2, 2014.
Rep. Jay Lucas is sworn in as speaker of the SC House on Dec 2, 2014. gmelendez@thestate.com

IT’S HARD TO believe it’s been less than two years since Jay Lucas was elected House speaker. (He took over as acting speaker when then-Speaker Bobby Harrell was indicted, 25 months ago.)

In that short time, he’s done ethics reform. Then reform of the Transportation Department — coupled with a respectable if far-from-perfect road-funding plan. Then a remarkably smart framework for providing a decent education to kids in even our poorest schools. And now, the Pee Dee attorney is making my heart go pitter-patter once again, by setting his sights on perhaps my greatest passion: comprehensive tax reform.

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Editorial: Legislature should follow House education task force’s road map

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No, he wasn’t able to persuade the Senate to go along with all the ethics and campaign finance reforms he got his House to adopt; but he got us a much better law than we had.

Nor did he get the Senate to adopt the reforms we need at the Transportation Department — and certainly not his funding plan; in fact, he and the House caved in the end and diverted still more general tax revenue from general government needs to subsidize road construction. But the reforms nudge us in the direction of giving the governor more control over the agency.

His framework for responding to the Supreme Court’s order in the Abbeville v. South Carolina school adequacy lawsuit is at this point little more than that: a framework. Not even the House went as far as it should have this year toward turning that framework into law.

And the odds of overhauling our loophole-riddled, special-interest-driven tax policy are, well … to say they’re long asks far too much of the word “long.”

Nor am I crazy about everything he has done as speaker. He has sometimes settled for too little, sometimes held out for too much — and ended up with less. And I’m sure if I reviewed all the policies he has supported, there would be a lot that I find disagreeable. But on the ones that matter most for our state, Mr. Lucas’ heart is in the right place. Even more impressive is the fact that on a regular basis, he is trying to pass the essential reforms that our state’s leaders have been unwilling for so long to even attempt.

It’s a dramatic change in a House that had grown stagnant and resistant to reform during Mr. Harrell’s too-long tenure.

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Scoppe: Harrell indictment changes everything

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The big-picture focus is no accident, said Mr. Lucas, who created a task force this summer to come up with a flatter and broader tax system — which is policy-wonk speak for a system with fewer loopholes and exemptions, that covers a broader swath of our economy. “I want to have addressed the things that I think are a big deal,” he told me last month. “Maybe we don’t do it this year; maybe we do it next year.… Maybe we’re laying the groundwork for after I leave.”

(Yes, he talks far more than I’d like about not staying in this job very long.)

He is nonplussed by the competing views of the governor — who seems to oppose any tax increase that isn’t accompanies by a far, far larger tax cut — and Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, who seems cool to the idea of expending the necessary political capital for a tax reform plan that doesn’t significantly increase state revenue.

What’s wrong with our tax system? Well, for starters ... For ever $3 you spend in South Carolina, you pay taxes on just $1. For every 3 South Carolinians who pay income taxes, 2 don’t. SC businesses pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation for school operations — while homeowners pay none. What looks like a 7 percent income tax rate acts like it’s 3 percent — on average. But some pay more, some less, thanks to a convoluted collection of exemptions and exclusions.

“As far as the Senate and the governor are concerned, I learned … hard lessons over there the last couple of years,” he said. “One of the things I learned is I can’t predicate what we do in the House on what the Senate and the governor are going to do.”

There’s nothing new about a House leader saying he’s not worried that the Senate (or governor) might not go along with his proposal, or vice versa. And there’s something to be said for that mindset: You don’t know for sure how much you can get until you try. At the same time, it’s all too common for leaders of both bodies to declare victory after getting a significant bill passed in their body — never mind that it dies in the other body.

So what Mr. Lucas said next was particularly encouraging: “The thing I’ve got to come to terms with is the House can’t do it by themselves.”

And this: “I want you to understand that I have thought long and hard about what my role should be vis a vis the governor and Senate.”

That’s why he decided to work with Sen. Leatherman to create a joint House-Senate task force to look for ways to shore up the state’s pension system “rather than me coming up with what I think is a tremendous idea and our idea not get any traction in the Senate.”

“I’m going to do a lot better job of working with the Senate this year,” he said. “I have a lot of friends over there, and I understand that they do things differently. We’re gonna deal differently with the Senate this year.”

It’s not clear exactly what that means, but you can be sure of this: That different approach will involve matters that matter to the future of our state — not merely to the future of our politicians.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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