There they stood in their white ties and tails, cocktails in hand, looking very smug and pleased with themselves. And why shouldn't they? Not only had they just screwed the people of South Carolina out of millions of tax dollars, but they were celebrating it as a great humanitarian gesture.
The photograph in the Oct. 27 Post & Courier would be funny if it were not obscene. A group of Charleston's most distinguished gentlemen were gathered at the Carolina Yacht Club for the French Society's 191st anniversary dinner. As part of their celebration they had just made their annual Humanitati Award to one Emerson Read Sr. for his efforts to "improve the human condition either in his community or the world at large," according to the P&C.
"Like a savior, he was there when we needed him," French Society member Jack Simmons told those gathered at the yacht club. "And by 'we' I mean every single South Carolinian and potentially every United States citizen."
So what had this great man done to earn such commendation and the manifest love and admiration of his peers? Did he find a cure for cancer? Bring peace to the Middle East? Discover a way to reverse global climate change?
No, Emerson Read led the campaign to abolish property taxes in South Carolina. He did not completely succeed. The General Assembly eliminated the school operations portion of the property tax and capped reassessment at 15 percent for residential properties that had not changed hands. In exchange, they raised the state sales tax by one percent and threw the middle class a bone by eliminating sales tax on most groceries, saving the average household about $218 a year.
While Read says his war on property tax is not finished, he has already won a substantial reduction in tax for some home owners, especially for owners of expensive houses — the kind of plutocrats and good old boys who stood around the yacht club two weeks ago, overdressed, overfed, toasting their "savior" and talking about improving the human condition.
Humanitati, my ass. In a state which already has one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation, the property tax reduction and corresponding sales tax increase was just the most recent way our lawmakers have found to steal from the middle class and give to the rich in this third world state.
Last year, the Center for a Better South published Doing Better: Progressive Tax Reform for the American South, which offered 11 practical ideas for fairer taxes in the 11 states of the old Confederacy. One recommendation was to create a property tax circuit breaker to shield residents from excessive taxation by connecting property tax to an individual's ability to pay. It's a way to keep the poor and elderly from being taxed out of their homes. No southern state has a property tax circuit breaker, which is a progressive solution to excessive property tax. Yet it has worked in other states, and it could work here.
But when the legislature was debating property tax reform in 2006, it specifically threw out the circuit breaker. The reason is clear enough. The government-hating, tax-cutting Republicans do not want to make property taxes practical and workable. They want them to be onerous and oppressive, thus giving themselves an excuse to do away with them altogether. And giving a bunch of greedy blowhards down at the Carolina Yacht Club an opportunity to laud a demagogue like Emerson Read.
Why do South Carolina voters continue to fall for the sleight-of-hand tax tricks and other ruses our legislators hand us — year after year, generation after generation? In the Oct. 16 issue of Harper's, writer Ken Silverstein offered an insight.
Silverstein interviewed Republican political operator Rod Shealy ("Something Sleazy on the Isle," Oct. 31) and proposed a theory that the flood of new residents into S.C. was changing the character of the electorate. As a result, running hard right in the state, on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, would become less effective. "The smart strategy is to pay lip service to social issues, but to focus on pocket book issues that appeal to fiscal conservatives," he suggested.
Shealy was doubtful. "It's true, our entire coast is filled with people who sound more like you than they do like me," he told Silverman. "But it will be a long time before it's a bad strategy to run to the right in South Carolina ... Working the social issues is still important."
South Carolina's legislators will always be working the social issues, like last November's constitutional amendment against gay marriage. And the voters in this Baptist-ridden state will always fall for it. And that's why you won't be seeing any fair tax relief here in the near future.