The state and federal governments have been slow to improve roads, so counties all over South Carolina are taking matters into their own hands by letting voters decide whether to approve an additional one-cent sales tax. But some voters are trying to keep the issue from ever reaching the ballot.
One Lexington-based taxpayer watchdog group, the Lexington County Citizens Watch is trying to stop a referendum for an additional penny before it reaches the ballot. If passed, that boost would raise an estimated $290 million, which county officials hope to put toward roads. The group is fighting the referendum through an online petition and by canvassing.
Some Greenville County taxpayers are fighting a similar measure. Council advanced the tax referendum Tuesday by a vote of 8 to 3, according to WYFF-NBC. Targeted for road improvements, bridges, pedestrian amenities and resurfacing, the measure must clear two more hurdles before reaching the ballot in November. The tax would bring in up to an estimated $70 million.
But why not let the people decide whether to raise a tax on themselves for infrastructure improvements? Greenville County resident Joshua Cook hears that question often. Cook, who heads No Tax Hike SC and works with the Republican Liberty Caucus, thinks the only way to stop the tax is to keep it off the ballot altogether. Special interest groups have more resources to educate people about the benefits of the tax than the grass roots has resources to educate people about the perils, he says.
“No one’s debating the fact that the roads are awful,” says Cook. But he points out that some of the projects on Greenville’s list are for bike trails, not just road projects.And this proposed higher sales tax would be “at the expense of people who are already suffering,” he says.
As for the gas taxes that are targeted for state roads, Cook says the county only gets four cents back out of the 16 cents it sends to the state.
Often trotted out as a success story by penny-tax advocates, York County approved a sales tax for road improvements in 1996. Back then, officials weren’t getting the support they wanted from the state and federal governments. “The county took it upon itself to do something about it,” says County Council Chairman, Britt Blackwell. The county is one of the fastest growing in the state, he says, and the state wouldn’t have been able to meet the demands of population growth.
Like the Lexington County proposal, York County voters had to approve the tax for it to take effect. They have done so twice since 1997, with 82 percent of voters approving of renewing the tax in 2011. Many of those taxes have gone to new roads. Blackwell says officials are looking at splitting the tax—up for renewal after April, 2017—between maintenance and roads.
York County has spent more than $276 million on 53 projects since voters first approved the tax increase.
As for Lexington’s tax, the Lexington Chamber of Commerce is supportive. Former Lexington Mayor, Randy Halfacre recalls fielding complaints six years ago about the lack of funds to address the area’s traffic congestion. He hopes to see the tax address traffic problems and infrastructure needs like parking, sewer and water. “It would definitely improve the lives and safety of our citizens,” says Halfacre, who now heads the chamber. He challenges people to look at it as an investment, not just as a tax. “Will Lexington become a third world county” in the next decade without the tax, he asks.
Like an experienced politician, Halfacre poses the question of what will happen if approval of the tax fails. If not this one cent, then what, he asks. “Where’s it gonna come from?”
Another Lexington politician opposes the tax. Republican state Sen. Katrina Shealy doesn’t approve of increasing the sales tax, but thinks increases should be spent on infrastructure alone. Shealy did not respond to a phone message left at her Senate office last week. But she had this to say on her Facebook page last
“…Although I do not agree with any new tax – if the people of Lexington County vote to implement this tax this money MUST be designated for specific infrastructure. We cannot leave this money on the table for any other project until our road issues are dealt with. This is the ONLY priority. When I attended the Pennies for Progress seminar at the Farmers Market at the beginning of the year I was shown how this money was used for implementing road repairs and paving in other areas throughout the state nothing else. We do not need any new trees planted, sidewalks built, or any new buildings until our roads are repaired and once that is done this “Penny” needs to go away!”