State Sen. Tom Davis is making plans to push his property tax reform proposal next year after conceding the idea is going nowhere this legislative session.
An expected state Supreme Court decision on South Carolina's sales tax exemptions has not come through. Davis says a ruling against the exemptions would provide political cover for legislators now reluctant to remove about 60 of them. He wants to use the anticipated $600 million in revenue to help pay for changes in how we pay for public education.
Davis estimates it would take about $1.3 billion to fund education without property tax revenue, providing relief for second-home and commercial property owners.
The question now is not whether Davis' plan would work or whether fellow lawmakers would support it, but what's taking the Supreme Court so long to rule on this issue?
It's been almost a year and a half since the court heard arguments in a lawsuit brought against the exemptions, which result in $2.7 billion in sales tax exemptions compared with only $2.2 billion in sales tax collections.
That seems about a year too long. Is it that hard to figure out the legal requirements on this issue?
It isn't even the first time the subject has come up. Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in a 2003 dissenting opinion in another sales tax case: To be constitutional, a law "must possess two indispensable qualities: first, it must be framed so as to extend to and embrace equally all persons who are or may be in the like situation and circumstances; and secondly, the classification must be natural and reasonable, not arbitrary and capricious."
But the delay in getting a sales tax decision pales in comparison with the delay in hearing from the state's high court in a lawsuit over education funding brought by some of the state's poorest school districts. We've been waiting nearly five years for that decision.
The issue got its start in 1993, when dozens of poor, rural school districts challenged the state's funding formula under the 1977 Education Finance Act. In 1999, a Supreme Court ruling laid out the "minimally adequate" standard for state education funding . The court defined it as the ability to read, write and speak English, knowledge of math and science, and an understanding of history, economics and civics, as well as vocational skills.
That ruling also returned the case to circuit court to determine whether the state was meeting that standard. A 2005 lower court ruling found that the state wasn't doing enough for early education. The legislature established a pilot pre-kindergarten program, but appeals sent the case back to the Supreme Court in 2008.
We've waited so long now that the court brought back the parties to reargue the case last September. Two new justices had been seated since the court last heard arguments. The court asked the attorneys to discuss how legislation affecting school funding since 2005 might have affected their arguments.
We seem to be caught in a judicial-legislative standoff: The legislature waits for a court ruling before it moves on critical public policy issues; the court waits for the legislature to move to fix problems identified in lawsuits and court arguments.
The high court should move ahead with rulings that lay out whether the legislature is meeting requirements on taxation and education. The justices have had ample time to weigh the legal arguments and constitutional standards involved.
Lawmakers haven't shown any sign they are going to address these issues in a substantive way without a push from the bench.