With the General Assembly preparing to go into hibernation for seven months, this might be a good time to look at what it accomplished in 2009 and why it didn't do more.
As one web wag has pointed out, the Assembly's major accomplishment this year was passing a budget bill, which is constitutionally required. But that is better than last year, when the Wise Ones spent five months debating and passing an immigration reform bill, even though immigration is a federal issue. On its most important issues the General Assembly found itself paralyzed by an abbreviated schedule, internal politics, and the distraction of a governor playing national politics with $700 million in federal stimulus money. We can be glad that they ran out of time on voter ID and the 24-hour waiting period for abortion. The voters and the women of South Carolina deserve better than this. But understand that these bills failed because there was a lack of time, not a wealth of virtue and wisdom.
On other important initiatives — raising the cigarette tax and government reorganization — our Legislature came up empty. On the critically important, and hotly-debated payday lending bill, they rushed through a watered-down compromise on the last day, hardly the dramatic reform that was needed. It was just enough to silence payday lending critics and keep the issue off the table for the next year or two. Meanwhile, payday lenders will continue to prey on the state's most vulnerable during the deepest economic downturn in 75 years.
In a state with so many needs in education, public health and safety, and economic development, how could our elected leaders let us down year after year? Who benefits by South Carolina remaining eternally behind the national curve? Or, to put it another way, who owns our state government?
As Jack Bass writes in his new book, The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina, "Chattel slavery shaped everything from law to land ownership. The earliest colonial land policy insured both the marginality of the small farmer and the centrality of plantation slavery." Under the state Constitution of 1790, a person (read: white man) was required to own 500 acres of land and 10 slaves to belong to the state House of Representatives, and double that to belong to the Senate. The all-powerful state Legislature was a very exclusive club of wealthy land and slave owners. Historian Walter Edgar has written that, as the plantation economy was slowly replaced by an industrial economy after the Civil War, attitudes and social structures remained largely unchanged. Textile mill owners dominated the General Assembly and the lives of their workers almost as completely as the plantation owners had done before 1865.
Much has changed in recent decades, some things more than others. It appears that one thing which has resisted change is the attitude of the state's political elite. They still consider it their responsibility to represent the interests of wealth and power over the interests of ordinary South Carolinians who need schools, jobs, health care, and so much more. (See The Good Fight, Jan. 21.) How else do you explain a tax code that has no sales tax on services — you know, things like lawn care and pedicures, massages, and tax service, the kind of things that upper income residents are more likely to use? How to explain a $300 cap on the sales tax for automobiles? Whether you buy a 10-year-old Chevy or a shiny new Ferrari, you won't pay more than $300 sales tax.
And how about the 2006 overhaul of the tax code, eliminating residential property taxes to the benefit of the wealthiest South Carolinians? Some state economists say that bit of generosity to the rich set us up for our present budget crisis.
Gov. Mark Sanford, a friend of the rich if ever there was one, has campaigned for years to give tax credits to upper middle-class families, using public school funds to subsidize the private school education of their children. More recently, he has advocated using the proposed tax increase on cigarettes to pay for an income tax cut for the wealthiest South Carolinians. (See The Good Fight, Dec. 17, 2008.) State policy makers have long called for using the tobacco tax windfall to pay for health care insurance for the state's multitude of uninsured. Maybe it's just as well the cigarette tax hike didn't pass. The wealthy don't need another favor from state government. What they do need is a sense of responsibility, not a sense of entitlement.
Old attitudes and behavior die hard, and our state government's obligation to wealth and power will outlive all of us.