New Bills Filed for 2017 – Our Take

statehouse-window-senateTHE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE EGREGIOUS

The legislative session begins this week, and scores of bills await debate. Among these are bills that would increase the gas tax, restrict Second Amendment rights, and give tax breaks to special interests.  Below are some of the major bills we’re watching.

Roads

Over the past four years, the legislature and other special interest groups have tried to pass an increase in the tax on gasoline, supposedly for the purpose of repairing South Carolina’s aging and deteriorating road system. The trouble with these proposals is that they would tax more from taxpayers while failing to address the problem: accountability for road prioritization.

The House and Senate both prefiled bills that would raise the gas tax. S.54 and H.3111 would require a 12-cent and 14-cent increase in the gas tax respectively, but neither bill would alter the secretive and unaccountable structure of the state’s road-funding system. The sponsor of the Senate bill actually admitted that the structure needs reform, but that funding should come first – an extraordinary admission.

One bill, H.3315, would allow South Carolina residents to opt out of an increased gas tax at checkout but would also give a tax credit to those residents who choose not to opt out. S.70 would allow counties to raise the gas tax independent of the state – effectively making 46 different gas taxes across South Carolina, not including the state and federal gas taxes.

Second Amendment

No fewer than 16 bills would in some way weaken Second Amendment rights for South Carolinians, while only three or four would marginally strengthen them. Several (for example S.158, S.159, and H.3328) would lengthen the amount of time a background check could take before a person is able to buy a gun, while several others would create a special class of government officials with special permission to carry firearms where private citizens couldn’t (H.3025). Another bill, H.3181, would mandate that private firearm sales must go through a background check, and H.3217 would require that a gun owner must report a firearm lost or stolen within 24 hours or face stiff penalties.

Several prefiled bills, meanwhile, would strengthen Second Amendment rights; for example H.3240, which would allow out-of-state concealed weapon permit holders to carry in South Carolina; and H.3248, which would allow concealed weapon holders to carry on college campuses.

Property rights

The last several years have seen egregious attempts to compromise South Carolinians’ property rights; this year’s prefiled bills are at least more balanced. One bill, H.3210, would require property seized through civil asset forfeiture to be returned within 30 days if no criminal charges are filed against the owner – a significant step toward reform of an abusive practice.

By contrast, H.3239 would hold business owners who do not want those carrying a concealed weapon on their property liable for any injury to a CWP holder by the perpetrator of a crime. The bill’s premise is silly: The hypothetical CWP holder injured in the place where the owners don’t want concealed weapons was not forced to go there.

First Amendment

A number of prefiled bills would run afoul of the First Amendment. H.3003, for instance, would require all devices that access the internet in South Carolina to block obscene content. The filter could be removed for a $20 fee. The proposal is both impractical and guaranteed to provoke a successful court challenge on First Amendment grounds.

On the sounder side, both H.3163 and H.3168 would allow voters to write in the presidential and vice presidential candidate of their choice. Were either of these bills to pass, voters could choose whomever they wanted and not be limited to a pre-approved slate of candidates, as is the case now.

Government spending

Even though South Carolina is required to have a balanced budget amendment, that doesn’t make the state’s spending responsible – indeed, it doesn’t even mean its budget is “balanced” in the common sense of the term. H.3076 would attempt to rein in spending and even require state agencies to justify every dollar spent. H.3107 and S.64 both impose spending caps on the legislature. The first problem with both bills is that they apply exclusively or mainly to General Fund growth, thus allowing budget appropriators to shift spending to Other Funds. The second problem is that spending growth is tied to population and inflation – i.e. demand for services. Not only does that mean government will never be cut; it means government will grow even during times of economic slowdowns. Government spending should be tied to South Carolinians ability to pay, regardless of inflation and population growth. Moreover, excess revenue should be returned to taxpayers, not absorbed into government. (We explain these principles here.)

On the positive side, S.145 would require a biennial state budget – a budget every two years. This would force legislators to prioritize spending and think long-term, not just for the next 12 months. One concerning provision in this bill would allow for supplemental bills in the off-years, which sounds to us like a way around the whole requirement.

One sound reform concerns Other Funds, that part of the budget made up of fines and fees. S.76 would require agencies to disclose their Other Fund balances and how the money will be used. Requiring agencies to explain how much money they’re carrying forward might discourage some agencies’ practice of hoarding millions in non-transparent funds, to be spent how they wish.

Taxes and tax favors

This summer, a House committee began looking at the porous South Carolina tax code with the stated goal of making it fairer for all South Carolinians. It quickly became apparent, however, that special interests and their tax breaks would be protected while citizens could see an increase in taxes. Based on the prefiled bills in the House and Senate, we should expect to see more of the same this session.

There are proposals to make home security systems tax free one weekend a year (S.73); give tax breaks to businesses located within an ambiguous sounding area called “Promenade Pride Districts” (H.3312) and “port enhancement zones” (S.58); exempt sales tax on electric vehicle machinery (H.3321), and renewable-source machinery (H.3320); and even increase the exemption on portable toilets (H. 3095).

A few bills would favor taxpayers as a whole rather than special interests. S.48 would phase out the capital gains tax over 10 years, and S.56 would allow taxpayers to challenge the tax assessment on their vehicles by giving the county auditor a bill of sale that reflects a lower value than the assessed amount.

Reform and restructuring

South Carolina used to have one of the highest number of elected statewide officials in the nation. Over the past few years, citizens have voted for the governor to appoint the adjutant general and the lieutenant governor. That’s progress, but there is still a raft of constitutional officers (officials elected by the entire state) that ought to be appointed rather than elected. Several prefiled bills would require the governor to appoint the secretary of state (S.129),  superintendent of education (S.27, S.137), the comptroller general (S.139), and the commissioner of agriculture (S.140).

Judicial reform

In South Carolina judges are unilaterally elected by the legislature (the governor plays no part in it) and vetted by a panel made up of lawmakers and their appointees. In effect, one branch (the legislature) exercises near total dominance over the other (the judiciary) – precisely the kind of hegemony the principle of separation of powers is designed to prevent. A few bills would make some progress, requiring the above-mentioned screening panel (the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, or JMSC) to nominate five candidates per seat instead of three (H. 3175), requiring the JMSC to release the full slate of qualified candidates (S.96, H.3024), and allowing the governor to make appointments to the commission (H.3207). These are negligible changes to the current imbalance of power. The solution is to follow the American Founders and allow the executive (the governor) to nominate judges and the legislature (particularly the Senate) to confirm them.

Regulation

As in past years there are more burdensome bills that attempt to regulate the choices businesses and individuals make. H.3006 would require metal detectors at movie theaters, sporting arenas, and concerts. Another bill, H.3038, attempts to regulate a whole industry by creating a State Board of Locksmiths, complete with arbitrary requirements that bar smaller would-be competitors from entering the market and competing with established firms.

H.3241 would make it illegal for someone to smoke in a car with a child under five. The health of children is important, but there are many other ill-advised choices: Is the state to forbid or regulate them all? A far more welcome bill, by contrast, H.3002, would require all regulations to have a sunset date of five years after they enactment. The sunset provision would have the effect of purging regulations for which there is no longer a need.

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