Penny tax would double funding for Midlands’ public transit

Richland County Council voted yesterday to place a referendum on the November ballot for voters in the county to consider adding a penny to the sales tax (taking it to 8 cents) to fund transportation.

The SC Progressive Network and ATU turned out dozens of bus and DART riders to press for 33% of the penny to be allocated to public transit. Council gave second reading to a proposal that funds public transit at 25%, with 71% to roads and 4% to pathways.

The front-page story in today’s State newspaper reported that the public hearing was “packed with sign-toting, T-shirt wearing bus advocates.”

“While we didn’t get the council to fund a great public transit system, the 20-year penny tax will raise over a quarter-billion dollars for public transit, more than doubling what has ever been budgeted,” Network Director Brett Bursey said.

“This plan takes us from bad to good, and we will remain engaged to insure the initiative passes in November and that public transit better serves the needs of its users.”

Lucious Williams, Vice President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 610, testifies June 19 before Richland County Council.

We’re all better off when we’re all better off

Sen. Phil Leventis has introduced the “TRAC Recommendation Act” (S 1454) that eliminates or reduces many sales tax exemptions, a move supported by the SC Progressive Network, which has been working to promote fair taxation and sustainable budgets. “Our state’s not broke,” Leventis said at a May 1 press conference, “but we are teetering on the verge of moral bankruptcy in our failure to meet the needs of our citizens.”

Unlike the recommendation by the Republican-sponsored Tax Realignment Commission (TRAC) that called for using new revenue to further lower taxes, Leventis’ bill requires new revenue to be used to fund statutory obligations for education and local governments. The legislation would increase the state’s budget by nearly $1 billion next year.

Leventis noted that during his 32 years as a state senator, “I have been guided by the principle that government should invest in meeting the needs and aspirations of its citizens. This principle has been undermined by an ideology claiming that government is the cause of our problems, and accordingly, must be starved. A government unwilling to invest tax dollars in itself and its citizens is the real source of our problems. When businesses strive to be competitive, they do so by investing in their future. That is what we have to do today in South Carolina to insure a more prosperous future.”

We’re not broke; narrow political ideology has trumped statesmanship. The lack of political will to fairly reform our tax codes to meet our basic civic contracts for education and infrastructure leads our citizens to believe that “minimally adequate” is the best we can hope for.

Leventis was joined by representatives from the SC Progressive Network, a coalition of organizations that represents the interests of a majority of the state’s families who make less than $42,000 a year.

“We don’t expect the legislature to pass the bill this year, but it’s critical for the public to understand that a lot of money is being left on the table,” said Network director Brett Bursey. “It should be up to the taxpayers to decide if their money is best spent on education or on further reducing taxes to compete with Mexico.“

Of all the industrialized nations, only Chile and Mexico have a lower individual tax burden than the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among the 50 states, South Carolina is ranked 43rd in the nation in taxes as a percentage of income, and dead last in per-capita state taxes (National Tax Foundation).

“We’re all better off, when we’re all better off,” said Network Co-chair Virginia Sanders, citing a recent International Monetary Fund report on the correlation between income inequality and general prosperity.

Our state’s business-friendly climate is reflected in the Forbes ranking that puts South Carolina 5th in its “business friendly regulatory environment” but 44th in quality of life. Forbes ranks the quality of our labor supply at 22nd, far behind North Carolina (third) and Georgia (fourth). “The message this sends is that South Carolina, with its lax regulations and unskilled labor force, is a cheap place to do business — but you might not want to live here,” Bursey said.

The House budget cuts mandatory funding for education by $665 million and local government funds by $71 million. These spending levels are set by law, but EFA and local government funding obligations are ignored by budget provisos due to a presumed lack of revenue and lack of political will. These cuts means larger classes, fewer teachers, police and fire fighters, as well as deteriorating infrastructure, all of which combine to make our state less competitive.


SC Education Association Jackie Hicks addresses the shortfall in education funds that could be helped by Leventis’ bill. See more photos from the press conference here.

The TRAC recommendations on sales taxes would raise nearly $1 billion next year and more in coming years. This is close to what we need to meet these mandatory spending levels, and more comprehensive tax reforms would meet and exceed them for years to come.

“The critical debate I hope to spark,” Leventis said, “is whether the role of our government is shaped by the special-interest groups who make the majority of campaign contributions, or by the citizens who pay the taxes. I believe that citizens are willing to pay fair and equitable taxes when they get their money’s worth. It’s called democracy.”

In this year’s House budget:
• The statutory funding level for the Education Finance Act was cut by $665 million, keeping our per-pupil funding at 1998 levels.
• The statutory funding for local governments’ support of police, fire and public services was cut $71 million.
• The revenue from the extra penny of sales tax for Act 388 was $129.5 million short of what was needed for education funding through sales tax, rather than property tax, requiring another raid on the General Fund.

The House budget shorted mandatory funding of these core public services by nearly $736 million. If you add the $129.5 million shifted from the General Fund, you come up with just about what the TRAC recommendations could recover through broad and fair sales tax reforms.

The TRAC Recommendations Act (S 1454) would:
• Raise the $300 “max tax” on cars, boats and planes and raise $61-$143 million annually as increased caps kick in.
• Tax food (not purchased with food stamps) at an effective rate of 2.41%, raising $251 million next year. 18.2% of the state’s population is receiving SNAP benefits and will pay no tax on food.
• Tax non Medicaid/Medicare medicine (with a $100 cap) and home utilities at an effective rate of 1.25%, raising $124 million next year. Those on Medicare or Medicaid (44% of the state’s children) will pay no tax on medicine.

Tents at State House don’t merit emergency regs

Gov. Nikki Haley placed an “Emergency Regulation” on the Budget and Control Board’s Dec. 20 agenda in an effort to prohibit camping on the State House grounds. She will argue that camping on the lawn is an “imminent peril to public health, safety and or welfare.”

“While camping out at the State House may not be a constitutional right, the governor is going about changing the regulations in a wrong and dangerous way,” said Brett Bursey, director of the SC Progressive Network.

Occupy Columbia protester works on his sign Dec. 18 at State House.

The governor is proposing to use the emergency regulations clause to bypass the laws  (1-23-120) that require public notification, public hearings and legislative consideration for new regulations. The emergency regulations allow a state agency to have regulations approved immediately upon filing with the state Legislative Council. There is no public notice, no hearing and no legislative review of Emergency regulations.

“One would anticipate such an extreme measure to apply to plagues and natural disasters, not to tents on the State House grounds,” Bursey said.

Past emergency regulations have only been enacted by DHEC  for imminent health threats to a community, or considered by the Department of Public Safety during a hurricane evacuation.

“We have an established constitutional process to make new regulations that mandates notice and public hearings,” Bursey said. “Through this process people may decide that ‘free speech camping’ is not allowed on state property, but neither the governor nor the Budget and Control board has that emergency authority. If the emergency regulation can be used in this fashion, there would be nothing to prevent the Department of Agriculture from suspending immigration laws to prevent the ‘imminent peril’ of peaches rotting in the fields as a threat to public welfare, or SLED from declaring union pickets a threat to public safety.”

It’s clear that the governor is more concerned with appearances and politics than with our state’s laws. “She doesn’t want tents on the State House lawn when the legislature returns in January or during the Republican presidential primary Jan. 28. While the governor may find tents on the lawn tacky, they hardly constitute an imminent peril to public welfare. One could argue that the imminent peril is that our democracy has been occupied by monied interests, and the tents on her lawn are a legitimate response.”

The SC Progressive Network suggests that the Budget and Control Board move on to part (B) of the governor’s request, which is to draft regulations for the use of the State House grounds through the established process.

The federal court admonished the state at a Dec. 14 hearing that the GROW v. Campbell decision of 1989 required the state to establish regulations regarding First Amendment expression on state property. Those rules were never codified. (GROW had permission to put a sign on the State House grounds opposing sending the SC National Guard to Central America, at a time when federal troops were banned. The rules were changed – the day the sign was to go up – to prohibit all signs. The court issued a directed verdict of guilty against the state and governor for changing the rules in order to violate GROW’s First Amendment rights. Part of the settlement was the promulgation of new rules.)

Bursey was director of the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW) when the organization successfully sued Gov. Carroll Campbell over his suppression of free speech on the State House grounds. In  1994 GROW organized the founding of the SC Progressive Network.

“For the past 22 years there has been an operative policy that you don’t need permission to exercise free speech on state property,”  Bursey said. “With Occupy Columbia challenging the governor’s sense of decorum, it looks like we need to put the policy in writing.”

Citizens united win in South Carolina!

In case you missed it, here are video clips and photos of the SC Progressive Network‘s support of the Occupy Columbia movement. For the most current Network news and events, join us on Facebook.

Occupy Columbia protesters defy Gov. Haley’s orders to leave State House grounds at 6pm.

SC Progressive Network issues call for citizens to challenge Gov. Haley’s order. Some 300 people showed up for a spirited rally at the State House. Nobody was arrested. Big night for free speech in South Carolina.

SC Progressive Network Director declares victory with Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the only legislator to risk arrest in defense of the First Amendment.

Photos of Gov. Nikki Haley’s press conference Nov. 16 announcing the eviction of the Occupy Columbia protesters, and the arrest of 19 two hours later.

Photos of a rally organized by the SC Progressive Network Nov. 21 challenging Gov. Haley’s orders.

Citizens United to Challenge Gov. Haley’s Order

The SC Progressive Network is asking South Carolina citizens to gather at the State House on Monday, Nov. 21, to challenge Gov. Nikki Haley’s order against protesting on the grounds after 6pm.

“We are urging citizens who believe that our First Amendment right to petition our government doesn’t end at sunset to join us at the State House from 6 to 7pm on Monday,” said Network Director Brett Bursey. “We will peacefully protest on the grounds, and are inviting legislators to join us in taking a stand for free speech in South Carolina.”

Gov. Nikki Haley orders protesters off the State House grounds at a Nov. 16 press conference. Two hours later, 19 Occupy Columbia activists are arrested.

The Network is a 16-year-old statewide coalition of advocacy organizations and grassroots activists that promotes democratic reforms, including reducing the influence of money in politics. “We do not believe that money is free speech, that corporations are people, or that the Occupy Wall Street protests don’t have a clear message,” Bursey said.

Network Co-chair Virginia Sanders said the the prohibition against protesting after 6pm reminds her of Columbia’s old Jim Crow practice of running the last bus to the black communities before dark. “The governor is saying that if I work until 5pm, my opportunity to protest her decisions will last about 15 minutes,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ remembers 1961, when 187 black students were arrested for protesting racial segregation on the State House grounds. The US Supreme Court threw out the conviction, ordering that the state could not “make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views.”

Participants in Monday’s protest will not be arrested unless they refuse to leave after being ordered to do so by the Bureau of Protective Services.

Neither the Governor’s Office, the Dept. of Public Saftey or the Bureau responded to repeated requests Friday for clarification of the new limits on First Amendment expression on the State House grounds. “It’s my guess that they don’t have a clue how to enforce an illegal order,” Bursey said.

“If I can’t stand on the State House grounds with a sign that expresses my opinion about how our democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests, I’d rather be in jail,” he said.

New South battles old poverty as right-to-work promises fade

By Margaret Newkirk and Frank Bass

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) — Nineteen years ago, when BMW announced a new factory off Interstate 85 in Spartanburg, South Carolina looked like the king of smokestack recruiting.

The world’s biggest manufacturer of luxury vehicles would make the city a “Mecca of foreign investment in the United States,” The Independent of London predicted. It would see a rush of industry chasing Munich-based Bayerische Motoren Werke AG. Downtown would spring to life. I-85 would be America’s Autobahn.

“Oh, they were going to solve all of our problems,” said Cynthia Lounds, director of community economic development at Piedmont Community Actions Inc., a social-service agency.

Today, South Carolina is one of the most impoverished states in the nation, becoming the seventh poorest in 2010 from 11th in 2007, according to recent U.S. Census data. Its percentage of residents living in poverty shot to 18.2 percent from 15 percent in that period. In downtown Spartanburg, near- empty Morgan Square features a used clothing store and two pawn shops.

South Carolina and other southern U.S. states topped the nation’s poverty rankings, a sign of trouble in the so-called New South known for its growth and ability to lure employers with laws restricting union organizing. The South was the country’s only region with an increase from 2009 to 2010 in both the number of poor and their proportion of the population, the census said.

‘Downward Pressure on Wages’

The numbers show that even as South Carolina trumpeted coups like BMW, the state’s stance toward organized labor has depressed living standards, said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina.

“There’s been this kind of undertow of low-wage jobs all along,” Kromm said. “There have been successes in luring industries, there’s no question about that. But it brought an overall downward pressure on wages.”

Job creation is at the center of the 2012 presidential campaign. South Carolina on Jan. 21 will play a key role as host to the first Southern primary in the race to select President Barack Obama’s Republican challenger.

The effect of right-to-work laws on wages has been the subject of intense debate for years. The National Right to Work Committee, for instance, says that employee compensation rose faster in states with those laws, according to the organization’s website.

Boeing Battle

South Carolina’s rising poverty rate coincides with a dispute over expansion of a Boeing Co. plant in North Charleston. The National Labor Relations Board sued Boeing Co. over its decision to locate a 4,000-job factory there, saying the move was intended to punish union activity at its base in Washington State.

“It’s like the Obama administration can’t come up with anything else to stifle business growth in this state,” said Lewis Gossett, president of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance.

Hostility to organized labor was at the core of the region’s strategy for attracting jobs: South Carolina joined the ranks of right-to-work states in 1954, outlawing contracts that require union membership or dues, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

‘Come on Down!’

The state marketed its non-union labor in the unionized North, said Brett Bursey, executive director of the SC Progressive Network, an activist group based in Columbia. One industry recruiting poster from the 1980s, he said, showed a man in a T-shirt and a swelling belly. “South Carolina has no labor pains,” it read. “Come on down!”

The fight over Chicago-based Boeing’s efforts to expand in North Charleston has revived the issue. With the state’s unemployment rate at 11.1 percent in August, compared with 9.1 percent nationwide, even some critics of the state’s labor stance want the Boeing plant to stay open.

“There’s not a lot of debate about that around here,” said Joseph Darby, a pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston who criticized what he said is the state’s emphasis on low-skill work over education. “The area is so starved for jobs.”

Like much of the Southeast, South Carolina lost construction employment during the recession. Its textile industry continued to bleed jobs as well: Union County, about 20 miles from Spartanburg, had the state’s fourth-highest unemployment rate after a sock factory and a mill closed in 2009 and 2010. The county also lost a 150-job Disney distribution warehouse it had lured from Memphis 12 years earlier with tax breaks. Disney moved the operation back to Tennessee in July.

Warehouse Work

“I’m just waiting to see what God has in store for me,” said Joan Bobo, 49, who worked at the facility since it opened. “I’m experienced in warehouse work. I haven’t found anything yet.”

South Carolina has seen good business news in the past year. Manufacturing employment in August was up 11,000 jobs from a year earlier, including 1,600 new jobs at BMW. The state beat out North Carolina for a Continental Tire company factory on Oct. 6. It’s getting an Amazon distribution center near Columbia.

BMW’s South Carolina plant directly and indirectly supported 23,050 jobs in 2007 and 2008, generating $1.2 billion in wages, according to a study by the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The automaker’s direct employees at the plant accounted for 2.2 percent of the state’s manufacturing employment, the study said.

Expectations ‘Exceeded’

“Since announcing our BMW operations in South Carolina in 1992, and beginning production in 1994, our expectations have continually been exceeded,” Max Metcalf, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Some of the new jobs in the state, though, have carried a downside. Employers began hiring through staffing agencies, instead of directly. The jobs were temporary and lower paid than permanent positions. At BMW, the difference was $15 per hour compared with $15.50, Metcalf said. The company needs the flexibility to respond to demand, he said, and recently moved many temporary workers to permanent status.

While South Carolina’s private businesses have added employment, the state lost 15,700 government positions in the year ending in August.

Juanita Dixon, 33, lost her seven-year government job in February. A community-college graduate and mother of two, Dixon earned $10.25 an hour, paid vacation and insurance as a medical assistant at a county rehabilitation center. Budget cuts closed it, she said in a phone interview.

Five Applications Daily

Dixon put in five job applications daily, she said. When BMW’s staffing contractor held a job fair at a hotel, she applied and was told the wage was $13 an hour.

She passed a written test, but failed a physical one. “You have to put tires on a car, and you have to do so many in so much time,” Dixon said. “They said, ‘You can reapply in a year.’”

Dixon now works at Spartanburg’s new Adidas Distribution Center, earning $9 an hour doing factory warehouse work. She got the job through a staffing agency in September: “It’s a temporary job for three months,” she said.

When BMW arrived in the city, the look of the place was transformed, said Lounds, of Piedmont Community Actions. Factory workers tooled around town in cars bought with employee discounts.

“There were more BMWs around here than Fords,” she said.

Drawn by BMW

Out on I-85, BMW now employs 7,000, nearly twice the 4,000 promised in the 1990s, said Metcalf, the spokesman. The automaker attracted more than 40 suppliers to the state, spurred investment in the Port of Charleston and invested $750 million during the recession in Spartanburg, which now has 277,916 people, according to the census.

Yet the I-85 “autobahn” of industry didn’t materialize, said Holly Ulrich, senior scholar at the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University.

“Those predictions were made during the boom years for South Carolina and the South, before a series of national economic catastrophes,” Ulrich said. “I haven’t seen evidence that it happened.”

On Sept. 27, five days after the census poverty numbers were released, the first-term Republican governor, Nikki Haley, tried to boost morale. She ordered state workers to change the way they answered the phone.

By the next morning, callers to an unemployment office in Spartanburg heard the new message: ‘It’s a great day in South Carolina.”

–Editors: Flynn McRoberts, Stephen Merelman

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at mnewkirk@bloomberg.net; Frank Bass in Washington at fbass1@bloomberg.net. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net.

Town halls expand Network’s voter ID campaign

The SC Progressive Network is holding a series of community forums titled “Voter ID and the new Jim Crow.” Network Director Brett Bursey will moderate. Each event will include a Q&A session and instructions for activists to work the issue in their community.

The forums will address the moving target of DOJ pre-clearance, and where we should put our efforts to try and stop it. The meeting will recognize photo ID as a symptom of larger problems, and will focus discussion on sharpening a strategy to address The Big Picture.

The Network is planning a statewide summit on Oct. 29 in Columbia to sharpen our focus and efforts. Details and agenda to be posted as they become available.

Call  803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com for details or to schedule a meeting in your area.

•  •  •

Sept. 12, Florence: 7pm at Poyner Auditorium, 319 South Dargan St.

Sept. 15, Beaufort: 6:30pm at Golden Corral, 122 Robert Smalls Pkwy. or Hwy. 170. Come early if you want to have dinner.

Sept. 20, Charleston: 7pm at ILA Hall, 1142 Morrison Dr.

Sept. 22, Greenville: 7pm at Furman University, Younts Conference Center.

Feds find SC’s photo ID law inadequate



As state works to satisfy DOJ’s questions, SC Progressive Network will continue to educate and mobilize SC voters

By Becci Robbins
SC Progressive Network Communication Director

The US Dept. of Justice denied approval of South Carolina’s new voter ID law on Aug. 29, giving the state another 60 days to make its case. As required by the Civil Rights Act, DOJ has been reviewing the law to ensure that it does not abridge the rights of minority voters.

In its ruling, DOJ asked the state eight questions about procedures on obtaining photo voter registration cards, funding for voter education and poll worker training, and the process for casting provisional ballots when a voter has no photo ID.

The SC Progressive Network filed voter affidavits and comments with DOJ, highlighting the burdens posed on rural, poor and minority voters, and the likelihood of the law’s unequal enforcement.

DOJ raised many of the concerns the Network has about how the state will work around the burden posed by voters needing a birth certificate to get the required DMV ID card. The final version of the bill included a provision that a registered voter could obtain a photo voter registration card – pending funding – that would serve as acceptable ID without mandating a birth certificate. One camera for each county office has been funded for this purpose. The cards will be made in Columbia and mailed to voters.

In an Aug. 25 submission to DOJ, the state filed draft procedures for issuing photo voter registration cards. The plan entails issuing paper voter registration cards that a voter cannot vote with unless they have the DMV photo ID. If they don’t have the required photo ID, they must go to their county voter registration office and trade in their paper registration card for a “temporary voter registration card with a photo” that is good for 30 days. Permanent photo voter registration cards with photos will be printed by the state election office and mailed to voters.

Not only is the process burdensome to voters and election workers, it is inadequately funded. In June, $1.4 million was appropriated to cover everything from buying the cameras to mailing notices to the estimated 200,000 registered SC voters with no photo ID, to educating the public and poll workers on the new law.

As confusion and costs over the ID law mount, we should remember that no one has ever been caught impersonating another voter at the polls in SC, the sort of fraud this law was designed to prevent. Rather than protecting the sanctity of the vote, as proponents claim, the new requirement does nothing but make it harder to vote in South Carolina. For some voters, the burden will be too high.

While the state digs itself deeper into a hole of its own making, the Progressive Network will continue to educate voters and expand an organized coalition of citizens to fight this and other laws compromising voting rights in South Carolina.