Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: The perils of minority rule

I'M TRYING so very hard not to celebrate what happened in the state Senate last week with the point-of-sale debacle, because that would put me in the same category as the hyper-partisan hypocrites.

You know the ones: The Democrats in Washington who are practically apoplectic now that they've lost their filibuster-proof majority, complaining that Republicans are thwarting the will of the majority - just as they did when the tables were turned. And the Republicans who are delighting in the very obstructionist behavior that they piously condemned when they were in the majority. And the Democrats here in South Carolina who are complaining about Republican obstructionism in the U.S. Senate while simultaneously complaining about Republicans who are outmaneuvering their own obstructionism in the S.C. Senate.

Six years ago, the Legislature passed a very bad tax law, which among other things declared that henceforth it would be the official policy of the state of South Carolina to tax property inequitably: Most property would be taxed at full value, but property in trendy neighborhoods would not be, and furthermore, those who owned the fully taxed property would have to either pay higher taxes or else get less government service in order to pay for the tax break for the fortunate few.

Lawmakers liked their very bad law so much that they added a lock-down provision that required a two-thirds vote of the total membership of the House and the Senate to change it. Put another way, they made the law subject to minority rule instead of majority rule.

And last week, the Legislature was hoisted by its own petard, as a minority of the Senate was able to stop the majority from changing that law.

It's one of those troubling instances - at least troubling if you are repulsed by situational ethics - where a very bad policy produces very good results, because the Legislature wasn't trying to fix the problems in the bad tax law; it was poised to make things even worse.

This happens more often than you'd think, though not usually in so dramatic a way, and I always feel bad about feeling satisfied, or at least relieved, when it does. A bad bill comes out of committee with a minority report, and I say to myself, "well, at least I won't have to worry about that passing." A bad bill gets hung up on the calendar behind a pointless bill that has the Senate locked up in an equally pointless filibuster (see the 10th Amendment resolution), and I say, "well, maybe the clock will run out before they can break the logjam and get to the bad bill." Of course, obstructionism kills good legislation at least as often.

The reason this happens so frequently is that our state Senate, even more than the U.S. Senate and the senates in other states, was deliberately designed to thwart the will of the majority. If a single senator objects to a bill, it will not even be considered unless two-thirds of the Senate votes to give it a priority spot on the calendar - which senators are loathe to do because there are so few priority spots available. And if a bill manages to get put on special order, as it's called, it takes 26 votes (out of 46) to stop a filibuster and actually vote on the bill.

That's not as bad as it used to be - it used to take two-thirds, or 31 votes, to break a filibuster; and now the Senate Rules Committee can put a bill on special order with the vote of just a majority of the Senate - but it still means that most bills that make it out of committee don't stand a chance unless every single member of the Senate signs off on them. (Most bills never make it out of committee, but that's standard in legislative bodies, as it should be.)

The point-of-sale bill, pushed by the powerful Realtors lobby and opposed by the cities, counties and school districts that the Legislature loves to emasculate, overcame all those obstacles. And it would have passed if it weren't for that extra super-majority provision that lawmakers had written into the original property tax law, in an attempt to make sure future legislatures could not change it. Indeed, it still could pass, if supporters are willing to make changes that will convince three more senators to support it.

The compromise that senators had worked out was not as bad as the bill the House had passed last year with two votes to spare. But "not as bad as" does not equal "good." And in this case it doesn't even equal "not bad."

It still would further constrict the already-constricted growth of the local property tax base, forcing cities, counties and schools to either cut services or raise tax rates. It still doesn't address the root cause of the problem. And every provision of the bill adds new layers of inequity to our tax system.

If we're lucky, supporters won't ever get those other three votes to pass this legislation. (Yes, I feel bad saying that; but it's true.) If we're luckier still, this experience will make legislators think twice before they put any more of those super-majority provisions into law.

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