Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: When logrolling invades the ballot box

gmelendez@thestate.com

WE USUALLY think of logrolling as something that happens in the Legislature and in the Congress, when one lawmaker agrees to vote for a budget with spending he doesn’t like because it includes spending he does like, often unnecessary and in his district. It’s an unhealthy extension of the normal give-and-take that is essential to operating government, one that earns the derisive term when it moves beyond trading more troopers for more social workers to trading a state-funded festival in your hometown for a state-funded city park in mine.

But while legislators complain that logrolling leaves them no choice but to accept unacceptable spending, lest they shut down the government, the fact is that they do have the option of offering amendments to strip out funding they object to.

That’s not the case when cities, counties and school districts ask voters to approve borrowing plans or tax increases. Those really are take-it-or-leave it propositions. And too often, local officials mix in frivolous or at least non-essential items with essential items, so that the only way voters can have, say, the roads they need is by also paying for rural sidewalks they don’t.

I was reminded of this when we read that the Richland 2 school board was considering building new football stadiums along with the new schools that a rapidly growing student population actually needs.

Richland 2 to get new stadiums, another high school?

To their credit, Richland 2 leaders said they were going to feel out the public response before deciding whether to pursue the football stadiums. But it’s nearly impossible to get a good idea about where voters are unless you commission a legitimate poll or else actually take a vote; whatever the topic, the people who speak out are the most passionate, which leaves out, well, most people. And that means that whether Richland 2 voters eventually are asked to pay for new stadiums will have less to do with whether they want those stadiums than with how much the school board members want them.

Now, I’m not convinced that local governments should have to get voter approval to borrow money or raise taxes. (I don’t think school districts should be able to raise taxes or borrow money without county approval, just like the state Board of Education can’t decide whether to raise state taxes for schools; only the Legislature, which has to balance all of our needs, can do that.) But the law says we nearly always must have a public vote before local governments and school boards borrow money or raise sales taxes, and as long as the law says voters have to sign off on most of these plans, voters should have fair choices.

What’s not fair is lumping very different types of expenditures together and forcing voters to take them or leave them.

That’s what the Richland County Council did in 2012 with the transportation sales tax. A lot of us thought it was essential to create a permanent funding source for the public bus system but didn’t like the idea of raising the already-too-high sales tax and weren’t sure about the propriety, without a change in state law, of the county assuming responsibility for state roads. Or we didn’t trust the County Council to manage a road-building program — a concern that unfortunately looks to have been borne out. But if we wanted bus funding, we had to support a $1.1 billion package that sent two-thirds of the money somewhere else. And that’s what voters did.

The Lexington County Council tried a similar gambit in 2014, lumping a road-building plan together with a wish list of walking trails, civic centers, sports fields and even town hall renovations that had nothing to do with roads and everything to do with trying to get buy-in from every little town and hamlet across the county. Those municipal expenses constituted only about 10 percent of the $268 million spending package, but once officials threw in water and sewage projects, only two-thirds of the money was slated for the road repairs that voters wanted.

Fortunately, that didn’t pay off, so now the council is putting together another proposal, which leaders say will be limited to roads. That would be good. I still wouldn’t like raising the sales tax, but at least voters who want to invest in roads will have the option of simply … investing in roads.

I’m not suggesting that we ought to have separate ballot questions for each individual spending item. Although that would nicely illustrate how impractical it is to govern by plebiscite, it would do that because it is impractical.

Lexington County Council takes first step for 2016 ballot on tax for roads

But elected officials know very well where the major fault lines are. They know that there is a qualitative difference between a new football stadium and a new high school. They know that there’s a difference between funding a public bus system and building new roads — and between building new roads and installing sidewalks. They know that there’s a difference between widening a congested highway and renovating a town hall.

Voters know that too, and they know how to vote against proposals pushed by elected officials who don’t respect them enough to let them vote separately on those different types of projects.

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

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