South Carolina editorial roundup

The Associated PressJuly 8, 2014 

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

July 7

The State, Columbia, South Carolina, on FOI ruling:

Governmental bodies shouldn't need a law to force them to release agendas to the public in advance of meetings. Public officials who have any interest whatsoever in serving the public would do this voluntarily, at the same time they provide the agenda to their members.

So now that the state Supreme Court has reversed everyone's understanding of what our open meetings law requires, we'll find out which governing bodies have any interest in serving the public: They'll be the ones that continue to release their agendas at least 24 hours in advance of meetings.

Frankly, there's no good reason that agendas shouldn't be released much sooner than 24 hours before a meeting. If something comes up late that needs to be added, officials can amend the agenda, and share that information with the public as soon as it's available.

We are surprised that anyone thought the law prohibited public bodies from amending their agendas. But the chairman of the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority, Dennis Lambries, got himself in a tizzy after his County Council voted during a regular meeting to take up a non-binding resolution about water and sewer services. He filed a lawsuit, and the result was that the Supreme Court not only confirmed that agendas may be amended but said governments don't have to release an agenda for regular meetings. Which is to say that someone's petulant lawsuit over a non-binding resolution is likely to result in much less open and accessible government across our state.

While a separate provision that the court didn't mention requires governments to "notify persons or organizations, local news media, or such other news media as may request notification of the times, dates, places, and agenda of all public meetings," the court hung its ruling on the first part of the statute, which merely requires the posting of an agenda, "if any," for regularly scheduled meetings.

It should come as no surprise that our Freedom of Information Act doesn't provide as much information as it ought to; it never has been particularly muscular. What makes this ruling so distressing is that governments in our state — particularly at the local level — never have been particularly careful about obeying the meager requirements we do have. ...

Surely this ruling, overturning what everyone had understood the law to be, will give our lawmakers impetus to act once and for all and write a law that comports with its high-minded preamble, which declares that "it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy."

Online:

http://www.thestate.com

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July 6

Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, South Carolina, on gas tax increase:

Gov. Nikki Haley has promised voters she will announce a plan next year to meet the state's road and highway improvement needs without raising taxes.

That would be quite a feat. The state has a significant backlog of road needs, and federal money is drying up. Like most other states, when the Great Recession hit, states put off road projects and cut maintenance funding.

All that deferred maintenance has piled up, and the lack of improved roads has made conditions worse. Two years ago, a state transportation task force estimated the state needs to spend $29 billion over 20 years to catch up.

That's a tremendous amount of money. The easiest thing for political leaders to do would be to pass a much smaller package and create the appearance the problem has been handled when in reality it would only be postponed.

Actually, the easiest thing is to say you have a plan but won't announce details until two months after you've been re-elected.

To make matters worse, the federal highway funding on which states like South Carolina depend ... is diminishing. As is its pattern, Congress has spent the money in the transportation budget more quickly than it comes in through federal fuel taxes. As soon as next month, the budget is expected to reach a critical level that will result in reduced funding to states.

That will leave South Carolina with an even bigger than $29 billion problem. And this is a problem that grows the more it is ignored. ...

South Carolina needs a meaningful plan to improve our roads, not just the vague promise of a plan after the election. Haley also needs to drop her blind refusal to even consider raising the gasoline tax to meet this critical state need.

South Carolina has one of the lowest state gasoline taxes in the nation. The national average is more than 31 cents per gallon. South Carolina's tax is less than 17 cents per gallon.

If the state were to raise the tax, experts say that 34 percent of the revenue raised would come from residents of other states just passing through South Carolina and filling up.

It simply makes no sense not to take advantage of this revenue stream to improve our roads, prevent more wear and tear on our vehicles, improve our safety and build our economic future. South Carolina needs a real plan, not merely the promise of one.

Online:

http://www.goupstate.com

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July 8

Aiken (South Carolina) Standard on fixing roads in state:

Gov. Nikki Haley may have what South Carolina needs to fix our crumbling roads and bridges, but she's not telling us until January. All we know after her announcement last week is that she's working on a plan that will be a road map for future infrastructure funding, and that it won't include a tax increase.

At this point, it is a clear campaign ploy on her part and a decision that doesn't help move our state forward when it comes to finding a comprehensive, long-term plan.

We need collaboration on an issue of this magnitude, but the governor is indicating she won't start that dialogue until after the election. Her plan may be an effective fix, but to keep this mystery plan under wraps for six months is almost inexplicable.

Virtually no one denies that our roads are in need of substantial upgrades. The state has an estimated shortfall of $30 billion over the next 20 years, and that's if we plan to get our roads merely to good condition by 2033.

Additionally, South Carolina has one of the largest state-maintained road systems in the country, and although there has been pushes for local governments to take more responsibility, the state is still significantly on the hook for maintaining it. ...

Local lawmakers are understandably hesitant to get behind a gas tax increase, but recognize the need for a well-rounded debate.

S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, believes a discussion needs to take place, and criticized Haley for not unveiling her plan now.

"Plans don't just pop up. If she says she has a plan, she needs to put it forth so we can begin work."

S.C. Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said a lot of ideas have been tossed around behind the scenes over the past few years, but agreed with Taylor as far as the need for open debate on the issue.

"Everybody recognizes that we have a need. Everybody recognizes that in order to address that need it's going to cost a lot of money," Massey said. "The disagreement comes about with how you're going to pay for it."

The governor clearly understands this is a need too, but we don't know how she plans to pay for it. Her general election opponent, S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen. D-Camden, has pointed to a number of ways he would fund road and bridge repairs, including long-term bonds, dedicating general fund surpluses for infrastructure and increasing vehicle registration fees.

These could be solutions, but the legislature will eventually have to debate the issue and develop a more complete picture.

Right now, Haley seems to see the issue as merely a form of political leverage - withholding her plan until after the election.

Online:

http://www.aikenstandard.com

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