Cindi Ross Scoppe

It was a great party — tax giveaways for everyone! Then the governor showed up

THEY CALL them Christmas trees — bills that get loaded down with every sort of unrelated amendment like so many gaudy ornaments on a Christmas tree — and by the time S.1043 left the Legislature on June 28, it had all the markings of the Yuletide timber except a cat climbing the trunk. But hold that thought.

S.1043 started out as a simple bill, 51 words, to extend the S.C. Abandoned Buildings Revitalization Act through 2025. That law, sponsored by Rep. James Smith, provides income tax or property tax credits for rehabilitating abandoned buildings and was set to expire at the end of 2019. But cities wanted it extended, because it encourages companies to fix up abandoned and often dangerous buildings, like some in Columbia’s Bull Street redevelopment.

The bill moved quickly and unanimously through the Senate, picking up a single amendment in committee, extending the tax credits to a project that involves “a redeveloped multi-floor structure that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places” that’s being turned into apartments.

The House took up the bill immediately, and voted, also unanimously, to add an amendment that tweaks the similar but separate S.C. Textiles Communities Revitalization Act.

And that changed everything.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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What if our Legislature were unbound by the constraints of the constitution?

Are you ready for some bobtailing?

The Municipal Association’s explanation of the abandoned buildings and textile revitalization laws

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When the amended bill returned to the Senate the following week, senators could have accepted the textile tax-credit amendment and sent it to the governor. Or they could have rejected the amendment and sent the bill back to the House.

But with just one day left in the regular legislative session, and all of their other special tax give-aways about to die for the year, visions of tax breaks danced in senators’ heads. And the logrolling orgy began.

They added broadcast satellite to the very short list of services that are subject to the state sales tax, as the Senate had done last year via S.428, which died in the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee.

They added a section that created a new income-tax credit for businesses that purchase S.C. Certified produce, as the Senate had done last year in S.404, which died in the House Ways and Means committee.

Once the bobtailing started, there wasn’t much we could do to stop it.

Reba Campbell, deputy executive director, Municipal Association of South Carolina

They added a section that allows local governments to appeal when the state Revenue Department sides with property owners who dispute their assessments, as the Senate had done this spring with S.793, which died in Ways and Means.

They added a section that provides income-tax breaks for international shipping. Sen. Larry Grooms had proposed doing that in S.1100, but his bill died in the Senate Finance Committee.

“Once the bobtailing started, there wasn’t much we could do to stop it,” the S.C. Municipal Association’s Reba Campbell told me last week. “Our goal from the start was the clean bill — and it stayed that way until almost the end.”

Senators also piled on amendments to exempt leased church vehicles from property taxes, repeal an income-tax credit for residential “geothermal machinery and equipment,” overhaul the tax preferences for community development corporations and allow redevelopment authorities to spend money on programs targeting unemployment. But none of these amendments survived the House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the by-now-wildly different versions of the bill during the Legislature’s May and June recesses.

Enter Christmas-tree-climbing feline, aka Gov. Henry McMaster.

With those four amendments deleted, negotiators wrapped the once-simple bill in a big red bow and presented it to the House and Senate on June 28. And while they were waiting for Gov. Henry McMaster to veto their SCE&G rate-cut bill so they could override it and go home for the summer, the Senate voted 38-0, the House 99-1, to approve the compromise, and send it to the governor.

Enter Christmas-tree-climbing feline, aka Gov. McMaster.

Even with all those add-ons, S.1043 would not rank in the top 10, or 20, or 50 exercises in legislative logrolling. But one of the most impressive things Mr. McMaster did as South Carolina’s attorney general was to side with a private party that sued the state over the constitutionality of a much bigger and gaudier Christmas tree bill that ran the gamut from turning USC Sumter into a four-year college to changing the requirements for lottery scholarships to offering incentives to encourage biotech research and development.

The court agreed with his nuanced argument, struck down large portions of the Life Sciences Act and, in so doing, revived the neglected single-subject requirement in the state constitution, which says that a bill must “relate to but one subject.”

As with all Christmas tree bills, the reason it was loaded down was to get laws passed that would not have been passed if they had to pass on their own merits.

When S.1043 landed on his desk, Mr. McMaster had a flashback to the Life Sciences Act, and on Independence Day eve, he fired off a veto letter. He rejected the bill, he said, because it violated the single-subject rule, which, he explained, “exists to ensure that members of the public and the General Assembly are informed of the contents of an act upon reading the title.” (In addition to informing the public, the rule is designed to thwart minority rule through logrolling — and corruption.)

I don’t know whether Mr. McMaster is right on the constitution; this bill is nowhere near as far over the line as the Life Sciences Act, and all of the changes are to the S.C. tax code. But it changes a lot of different sections of the tax code, it doesn’t pretend to be working toward a coherent end, and as is always the case with Christmas tree bills, the reason it was loaded down was to get laws passed that would not have been passed if they had to pass on their own merits.

There might be some good provisions in S.1043. But the governor is right about this: Those separate and distinct sections ought to become law via separate and distinct bills.

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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