Education, pension and tax reform big issues facing South Carolina legislators in 2019

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Expect to hear a lot about education when state lawmakers return to Columbia for the 2019 legislative session that begins Jan. 8.

Teachers in South Carolina watched as their counterparts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona walked out in 2018 to protest low pay and classroom conditions, and some say the Palmetto state is close to its own walkout if conditions don’t improve.

But education is not the only area in which reform is on the agenda. Local lawmakers say they expect state-pension reform, tax reform, and what to do with state-run power company Santee Cooper will be big issues, too.

Education

South Carolina teachers say they get paid too little and spend too much time on testing and paperwork. That combination is contributing to the state’s growing teacher shortage.

Approximately 6,700 teachers left their positions during or at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to the latest teacher retention report from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement. That’s 200 teachers more than the year before. The report said that school districts across the state reported 550 vacant teaching positions at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, a 16 percent increase over the previous year.

About 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years.

“We’re almost in a crisis,” said Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville.

A proposal to pass a teacher bill of rights calls for South Carolina to pay its teachers at least the Southeastern average, which would be an added $2,200 per teacher. A bill filed by Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, calls for teachers to make the national average. That would require an additional $10,000 per teacher.

The bill of rights also calls for teachers to have unencumbered planning time, equal to one quarter of their assigned instructional time. Teachers would also be compensated for work time beyond the regular school day and school year. In addition, teachers would be freed of excessive and burdensome paperwork related to disciplinary actions, state or district evaluation procedures, and other administrative inquiries that interfere with teachers’ directive to implement effective instruction for their students.

Pension reform

Last year, lawmakers voted to increase contributions to the state’s pension system by employees and their employers, which include cities, counties, and school districts. The pension funds had unfunded liabilities of $24.1 billion, thanks to underfunding, investment underperformance, and fewer workers supporting more retirees.

This year, lawmakers will consider switching the system to a defined-contribution plan instead of a defined-benefit plan that provides monthly payments for life, based on years worked and salary.

“We do have to make the change,” said Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Greenville.

Tax reform

Business and industry leaders have long complained that they have carried the tax burden since the passage more than a decade ago of Act 388, which replaced local property tax on owner-occupied homes with a 1-cent sales-tax increase on most retail purchases.

Washington-based Tax Foundation laid out options for comprehensive tax reform in “South Carolina: A Roadmap for Reform.” The report’s “boldest” option would eliminate corporate income taxes and reduce the state sales tax. But it would add sales tax to items currently exempt such as gasoline, attorney and banking fees, and funeral expenses. The idea also would tax groceries, something the state eliminated a decade ago.

“There’s a new energy to look at tax and pension reform,” said Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “This is the most excited members have been in some time.”

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