Fiscally liberal “Republican” lawmakers in South Carolina are trying to ram through a bill that would dramatically expand the power of local governments to raise taxes – and retroactively “bless” local governments which have unlawfully imposed various tax hikes on their citizens.
And not surprisingly, they appear to have the left-leaning mainstream media in their pocket on the issue …
According to an editorial in The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, the bill in question – S. 233 – would “correct what the S.C. supreme court said was a flaw in state law that doesn’t actually allow cities and counties to impose road maintenance and other fees that cities, counties, legislators and pretty much everybody else thought they could impose.”
Sounds innocent enough, right?
Yes, until you read between the lines …
What this bill really does is gives cities and counties the right to unilaterally raise taxes on citizens – so long as they call those tax hikes “fee increases” or “new fees.” Actually, it is much worse than that. In addition to granting this new taxing authority, the bill would retroactively “bless” all previous fee hikes and new fees even though they were clearly imposed on citizens illegally.
That is not “correcting a flaw” in state law, people … that is overturning the law (and the courts).
It is also sanctioning years of governmental lawlessness – and absolving local officials of their culpability in connection with that lawlessness.
Cities and counties are currently prohibited from imposing tax hikes masquerading as fees. According to S.C. Code of Laws § 6-1-300, a service or user fee must refer to a “charge required to be paid in return for a particular government service or program made available to the payer that benefits the payer in some manner different from the members of the general public not paying the fee.”
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A year ago, the S.C. supreme court affirmed this definition – unanimously striking down a Greenville County “road maintenance fee” as an unauthorized tax hike. In Burns v. Greenville County (.pdf), the court rejected Greenville’s argument that funds appropriated from the fee provided a “benefit peculiar to the payer of the fee.”
“While Greenville County residents who use the roads every day may derive more benefit from having the roads maintained in good condition, it is still the same benefit every driver gets, no matter where their car is registered,” the court ruled.
In a concurring opinion, justice John W. Kittredge took local governments to task for habitually violating this law.
“Local governments, for obvious reasons, want to avoid calling a tax a tax,” he wrote. “I am hopeful that today’s decision will deter the politically expedient penchant for imposing taxes disguised as ‘service or user fees.’ I believe today’s decision sends a clear message that the courts will not uphold taxes masquerading as ‘service or user fees.”
That’s quite a bit bolder than the language the Post and Courier included in its editorial, huh?
Indeed … which is why more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed against unlawful fee increases in South Carolina in the aftermath of the Burns decision.
Eager to preserve their right to raise taxes on citizens (without having to say they raised taxes), cities and counties pushed a bill in the Senate that would have rewritten the law and – again – retroactively applied it to all of the existing fee hikes and new fees.
That bill stalled, however – in no small part because the supreme court has held that the legislature cannot pass statutes which retroactively overrule its decisions. Lawmakers can certainly rewrite the law and apply those rewrites moving forward – but they cannot go back in time and make something legal that wasn’t legal at time.
Undeterred, several lawmakers from Horry County – one of the local governments staring down a Burns lawsuit – illegally bobtailed (or attached) their preferred language onto a totally unrelated bill regarding a tax exemption for homeowners.
That’s right: In an effort to preserve the ability of local governments to illegally tax their citizens, state lawmakers – led by “Republican” senator Greg Hembree and “Republican” representative Heather Ammons Crawford – illegally attached this bill to another piece of legislation after it had been shot down in the S.C. House.
Even the Post and Courier acknowledged as much when it referred to the Senate as having “hijacked” the original version of S. 233.
Adding yet another layer of insider incestuousness to the mix, Crawford’s husband – Cam Crawford – is a member of Horry County council. In other words, he is one of the local elected officials on the hook for these illegal tax hikes.
Do we really expect his wife to put taxpayers first with her husband’s ass on the line?
A panel of six lawmakers (including Crawford) will take up S. 233 in a conference committee meeting this week – and the mainstream media is championing its passage.
“Lawmakers really need to pass the bill,” the Post and Courier editorial noted.
No, they don’t.
The current law (and the court’s willingness to uphold it) provides taxpayers with a hedge of protection from illegally imposed levies. The fact lawmakers are even considering tearing that hedge down – especially during these tenuous economic times – is deeply troubling.
But then again, such are South Carolina “Republicans …”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that Buffalo Bisons’ lid pictured above).
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