Cindi Ross Scoppe

How our deadbeat Legislature is shorting cities and counties — again

SC House members await the start of the day’s session.
SC House members await the start of the day’s session. tdominick@thestate.com

TWO EXTRAORDINARY things happened in the House the other day: Representatives rejected an opportunity to take a slap at the environment, and even more surprisingly, they rejected an opportunity to take yet another slap at local governments.

The vehicle they chose not to board for both trips was H. 3529, which would have banned cities and counties from banning plastic bags, which coastal communities are doing because of the devastating damage the bags can do to sea creatures that swallow them. If you haven’t seen any pictures, you should. Or maybe you shouldn’t; it’s pretty gruesome.

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Effort to prevent plastic bag bans crashes in Legislature

This business-friendly bill is friendly to some businesses — but not most

SC towns, counties and schools to pay for shoring up pensions

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For cities and counties, this was a significant win — which is defined in the State House as the absence of a loss. And it came just one week after House Labor, Commerce and Industry Chairman Bill Sandifer was forced to at least temporarily back away from his business license bill that, among other things, would force cities and counties to give 25 percent discounts to out-of-state businesses. Seriously.

But that doesn’t mean the environment has turned friendly for local governments. Rep. Cezar McKnight summed up the general attitude with a tongue-in-cheek amendment to the plastic bag bill. “Notwithstanding another provision of law,” he proposed to write into state law, “no county, municipality, or other local government may enact any ordinance, regulation, or other law.” About anything.

Thank goodness the amendment was ruled out of order. It might have passed.

You can sometimes make a legitimate case for insisting on a statewide policy instead of letting cities and counties create a patchwork of contradictory laws. We wouldn’t let them write their own open-records laws or ethics laws, for instance; those do need to be one-size-fits-all, or at least adhere to a minimum statewide standard. The legitimacy of other one-size mandates can be less clear.

But here’s one thing that is clearly not legitimate: ordering cities and counties to perform services for the state, but refusing to pay for that work. The standard word for people who do that sort of thing is deadbeat.

It’s bad enough to short state agencies. Recall when the Legislature kept forcing the Corrections Department to lock up more prisoners for longer periods yet refused to allocate more money for the additional guards who were needed (but could not be hired) to keep the prisons safe. Or when the Legislature refused to provide enough money for the Medicaid agency to provide the services it was required by federal and state law to provide — and also prohibited it from implementing cost-savings measures. While those are irresponsible policy choices, they are clearly choices the Legislature has a legitimate right to make.

But cities and counties are run by elected officials, many of whom represent more people than House members do. And under our state constitution, they are responsible for running city and county governments.

State law requires cities and counties to provide such state services as running election and voter registration offices and jails and providing security at the courthouse and indigent defense for people charged with state crimes. State law also requires the Legislature to provide cities and counties with an amount of money equal to 4.5 percent of the previous year’s state budget. That’s supposed to pay for providing those services.

That means they should be getting $313 million this year, but they’re only getting $223 million. That’s just 71 percent of what the law requires and the lowest portion the Legislature has provided since … ever. It’s a smaller percent than the Legislature provided at the depths of the recession.

That will change next year if the House gets its way. Under the budget the House passed this week, local governments would receive … less. Not just less as a portion of the legal mandate: 65 percent. Less in total dollars: just $213 million.

Some legislators apparently think it’s OK to reduce the Local Government Fund because they’re picking up part of the cost cities and counties otherwise would have to pay to shore up the State Retirement System. But it was legislators’ decision to make government agencies pick up more of the cost for the fix rather than splitting it evenly with employees — perhaps a legitimate decision, but one cities and counties had no say about, even though they employ a quarter of those employees.

Further reducing reimbursements to local governments would be bad enough if our deadbeat Legislature allowed the duly elected representatives of cities and counties to levy taxes as they and their constituents saw fit. But as you might have guesssed from the Sandifer tax-breaks-for-Wal-Mart bill, it doesn’t.

Beyond mandating tax give-aways, the Legislature limits both the type of taxes local governments can collect and how much they can increase them. So it’s often illegal for local officials to raise taxes enough to make up for the money the Legislature is required but refuses to provide them. So they have to reduce services.

Returning the power of fiscal autonomy to cities and counties wouldn’t excuse the Legislature’s refusal to pay its bills. But at least it would give our local officials the option of providing the level of service that the people who live in the cities and counties are willing to pay for.

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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