Looking back at the past decade, it’s pretty easy to see what the S.C. General Assembly didn’t do: fix education, fix the tax structure, fix health care, and on and on.
But state lawmakers did get some things done in what might become known as the legislature’s Decade of the Nibble. That’s because each area they focused on was more of what a posh restaurant would call an “amuse bouche” than an entree.
During the Nibble Decade, lawmakers passed tax cuts, boosted funding to fix cruddy roads, protected land and shored up a failing pension system for state employees that needs more work still. They eventually also raised the pay of teachers and state employees and took baby steps to encourage the solar industry and limit opioid abuse.
And they argued. Goodness, how they argued about voting rights, guns, abortion, broadening health care for the poor, dark money in politics and ethics reform — even as scandal brought down a House speaker and snared other insiders.
Here’s a look at some impacts of the late-tween and teen years of the 2000s for the General Assembly:
» Tax cuts. The impact of a pre-recession income tax cut for small corporations took more than $1.6 billion of potential revenue out of state coffers in the 2010s. The cut, which reduced rates from 7 percent in 2006 to 3 percent by 2014, created a revenue loss of almost $300 million a year by 2018. In a state with big education and health funding needs, taking that much money out of the state’s revenue stream was destabilizing, particularly for whenever the next recession hits.
» Road improvements. After years of bickering, the General Assembly finally started to pay attention to the state’s aging roads. In 2013, lawmakers passed $50 million per year for big bridge and road improvement projects. Then in 2017 after the public screamed for better roads, they raised the gas tax for the first time in three decades. The boost, phased in by two pennies a year for six consecutive years, is expected to bring in $622 million per year for improved roads by 2023. The tax hike, however, became politically palatable with more tax cuts totaling $207 million a year, further reducing the state’s tax base.
» Conservation Bank. Lawmakers also reauthorized the S.C. Conservation Bank, which has protected 300,000 acres of land since 2002. The bank’s dedicated revenue was taken away, but its structure essentially was set up as a state agency, which conservationists lauded as a step forward.
» Guns. Lawmakers expanded gun rights — in some schools, bars and other places — rather than approving more extensive background checks and closing loopholes. Debates over guns continue to cause legislators to butt heads.
» Voting changes. Many freedom advocates found the Republican Party’s obsession over requiring identification cards at the polls to be little more than a modern-day poll tax to suppress voting.
» Pension reform. The state’s pension system for employees has been in a multibillion-dollar underfunded hole for years, but in 2017, lawmakers started to shore it up. They lowered fees for investment, increased the state’s contribution and set new investment guidelines. There’s more work to be done, but this steered the state in a new direction to fixing the system over the long term.
» Ethics reforms. State legislators also made some headway in bolstering government transparency in 2016 when they reconstituted an independent state Ethics Commission with broader powers. They also required public officials across the state and their immediate family members to disclose public and private sources of income. Lawmakers didn’t, however, rein in dark money creeping into the political process that is influencing elections in sinister ways.
All in all, the General Assembly deserves a “C” for its generally average work during the Decade of Nibbling Around the Edges. It made some progress on second-tier issues but didn’t tackle the much-needed improvements on education, poverty and health care that can really impact people’s lives.
For the next decade, big progress will be hard, particularly because the General Assembly is a harsher, less collegial place thanks to the nastiness creeping into state politics from extreme partisanship in Washington.