Legislators may be trumped by courts

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Legislators may be trumped by courts

The (Columbia) State
Published Monday, January 7, 2013   |  820 Words  |  

The state Supreme Court could have the biggest say on the state's budget, overshadowing lawmakers who return to Columbia today for the start of the 2013 legislative session.

The court's five justices are deliberating two major cases that could overhaul completely how the state pays for public education and collects state sales taxes -- two of the largest pieces of the state's annual $6 billion general fund budget.

In the sales tax case, the justices could rule that some -- or all -- of the state's 78 sales tax exemptions are unconstitutional, instantly adding billions of dollars of revenue to the state's budget. In the school funding case, the court could order the state to spend more money on public education.

In each case, the state's top legislative leaders argue the court has no authority to tell lawmakers how to spend money. It also leaves uncertainty as to how much they'll have to spend.

Some of the key issues that will be before the legislature, when its 2013 session starts today:

EDUCATION. The state now is not spending as much on K-12 public education as required by S.C. law, an issue minority party Democrats want to address. A lawsuit before the state Supreme Court also challenges the way the state pays for education, contending economically poor, rural school districts do not get enough money to provide students with a "minimally adequate" education. Some Republicans also may push for tax credits for parents who send their children to private school.

ELECTION REFORM. Legislators want to change the way that candidates file their statements of economic interest when declaring for elected office. Last year, more than 250 challengers statewide were tossed off ballots because they filed their paperwork improperly, according to confusing state laws. Meanwhile, incumbents got a pass on the requirement, creating the impression that the rules had been created to ward off challengers. Also, some legislators, including some Republicans, want to pass a law allowing early voting, before an election day, in the state.

ETHICS. Among the issues to be resolved:

  • Who employs lawmakers? Now, they don't have to say, making it impossible to determine if their votes are in the public interest or to benefit an employer or group with interests in how the state spends its money.
  • Who is funding secretive groups that buy ads to oppose some candidates? Now, those groups don't have to disclose their donors, making their agenda unknowable.
  • Also, a federal court ruling removed all limits on contributions to some political groups.

    HACKING. Hackers stole the financial information of millions of S.C. taxpayers from the state Revenue Department this fall. Attempting to plug that breach already has cost the state more than $20 million, including $12 million to buy credit monitoring coverage for taxpayers for one year. That cost could become a recurring line item in the state's budget. Then, there is the cost of ensuring the state's computer systems, including those at other agencies, are made less vulnerable to hackers.

    HEALTH INSURANCE. The cost of insuring public-sector workers -- while on the job and in retirement -- is rising. Who should pay for those increasing costs? A lawsuit before the state Supreme Court is challenging a state budget board decision to have workers pay more.

    MEDICARE EXPANSION. The federal health care reform law, set to go into full effect in 2014, would expand the joint federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, allowing more of the "working poor" to join. Democrats, hospitals and their allies favor the idea, saying it would ensure hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians have health coverage and be an economic boon. However, many Republicans, including Gov. Nikki Haley, oppose expansion, saying the state could not afford its future share of the cost.

    RESTRUCTURING. Haley will continue to press for creation of a state Department of Administration, giving her control over more areas of the state's bureaucracy.

    ROADS. One group wants the state to raise its gas tax to pay to repair the state's crumbling roads and bridges, contending billions must be spent on the state's infrastructure if it is to remain economically competitive. But tax hikes are non-starters with many Republicans, who control the S.C. House and Senate, and Haley.

    TAX REFORM. Calls for comprehensive tax reform -- to fix inequities in the state's taxes -- are made annually and, almost as often, the issue is studied. But it's a difficult task since special interests will fight to protect their tax breaks. Legislators could play "small ball" instead, cutting taxes on manufacturers, flattening the income tax or eliminating some sales-tax exemptions. A lawsuit challenging those exemptions as unconstitutional is before the state high court.

    Adam Beam of The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.