Editorial: Lexington County’s proposed penny-on-the-dollar tax increase a tough sell

July 5, 2014 

— LEXINGTON County leaders supporting a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to pay for roads and various capital projects will have to work much harder than Richland County did in selling its transportation sales tax.

Lexington doesn’t have as compelling an argument as the one Richland was able to present. While the bulk of the proceeds from Richland’s tax will pay for roads and other projects from a superfluous wish list — an attempt to solicit wider support — the emotional center and primary reason for the levy was to provide long-term funding for the public bus system.

The bus system is a necessary service that enriches lives and supports the local economy by transporting people to work, the doctor’s office, shopping areas and other destinations. With the system running out of operating cash, tax supporters benefited from the urgent need to find a long-term remedy. In addition, the system had a natural constituency in riders and advocates who galvanized behind the levy.

But with state and local governments depending more and more on the unstable sales tax in recent years, we had serious concerns about increasing Richland County’s already-too-high sales tax. We urged officials to seek alternative funding sources such as the vehicle fee once used to keep the buses operating. It was only after officials steadfastly insisted on asking voters to approve the tax hike that we hesitantly backed the increase, and then only because of the need to fund the bus system.

While Lexington County has road needs, we aren’t convinced that it has an urgent or compelling enough reason to raise the sales tax. And even without opposition organizing against the November sales tax referendum, county officials would find the measure a tough sell as well.

Just ask Richland County: Despite the bus system’s critical need, voters rejected the county’s first referendum on the transportation sales tax in 2010. County elected officials and business leaders had to regroup and rebuild the campaign before gaining approval in 2012.

Some in Lexington County might argue that it’s as critical to address their road woes as it was for Richland County to fund the bus system. Lexington long has sought ways to address road concerns that are only exacerbated by the county’s population growth. Leaders see the proposed sales tax as the only answer. It would pay for $268.1 million in road improvements and other projects and up to $91.3 million in additional projects if proceeds are higher than expected.

We understand that, like other local governments, Lexington County is attempting to meet what it sees as a critical need using the limited revenue options available to it. The Legislature has failed to provide local governments sufficient options — beyond sales taxes — to generate revenue to meet local needs.

But instead of putting even more pressure on the unstable sales tax, Lexington County officials should pressure lawmakers to provide another remedy — whether from the gas tax, the purpose of which is to address road needs, or some other avenue. And legislators ought to respond.

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