The House approved a multitude of bills during the past two weeks, in an effort to complete legislative work before our two-week furlough April 2-13.
In a vote of 65-49, the House on March 28 gave second reading to a “school choice” bill (H 4894) that would provide tax deductions to parents who home school, sent their child to a private school, or who choose to send their child to a public school in another district. I believe the bill would undermine the public school system by diverting nearly $37 million next year alone from the state’ s public schools, which are already underfunded.
Moreover, I am concerned about shifting state dollars to private schools that aren’t judged by the same criteria as public schools. Public and private schools have different regulations and typically use different student standardized tests. Several amendments would have leveled the playing field, including one that would have required students taking the deduction to take the same state tests required by public school students, but the amendments failed.
Specifically, the bill would allow parents to deduct up to $4,000 on their income taxes for each child attending private school, $2,000 for home school expenses and $1,000 for a child attending a public school outside their district. We’ve been told a $4,000 state tax deduction is equivalent to a tax rebate of at most $280, using the top marginal tax rate of 7 percent. That amount won’t go very far towards helping a child attend expensive private schools. The bill also would allow disabled students and students from low-income families to receive grants from nonprofit scholarship funding organizations. The bill would provide tax credits for certain donations to those organizations. Opponents of the legislation are hoping the Senate will amend or defeat the school choice legislation.
Another controversial measure (H 4967), which members approved on March 21, would reform two of the state’s retirement plans: the S.C. Retirement System (which serves public school teachers, state employees and local government employees) and the S.C. Police Officers Retirement System (which serves police officers and firefighters). The bill’s chief purpose is to boost the pension system’s long-term financial stability by reducing the pension deficit, estimated at between $13 billion and $18 billion. I believe the legislation’s goal is important, but the means to achieve it is overkill. I voted against the legislation, along with 26 other House members, because I believe it fails to include adequate protections for current state workers vested in the system.
Amendments were proposed to allowed state employees to count unused sick leave towards retirement in certain cases and to exempt state workers nearing retirement from the bill’s provisions, but unfortunately the amendments failed. House members unanimously approved an amendment that would increase from 10 percent to 11 percent the amount that legislators contribute to the General Assembly Retirement System. The one percent increase for legislators seemed only fair, since legislators should share the same burden that is being asked of state employees and others in the state retirement system.
In the end, the legislation remained largely unchanged from the version that was approved by the Ways and Means Committee. The bill includes the following provisions:
New state employees would be required to work 30 years instead of the current 28 years, in order to be eligible to retire with full benefits. Police officers and firefighters could still retire after 25 years.
Current and new employees served by the S. C. Retirement System and the Police Officers Retirement System would pay 1 percent more of their salaries into the retirement system, and the increase would be phased in over two years. That means state workers would ultimately pay 7.5 percent of their salaries into the system, instead of the current 6.5 percent.
Retirement benefits would be calculated based on the employee’s five highest years of compensation, rather than the current three highest years.
Cost of living adjustments for retirees would be awarded only when there is a satisfactory rate of return on pension system investments.
Unused sick leave, annual leave, or overtime could no longer be used to calculate retirement. The overtime revisions, however, would not apply to the Police Officers Retirement System.
The Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive (TERI) Program would be closed to new employees.
Members of the General Assembly would be prohibited from drawing retirement benefits while serving in the General Assembly.
Anti-spiking measures would prohibit eleventh hour raises and steps taken at the end of service that distort pension benefits.
The House also approved a measure (H 3130) aimed at discouraging teens from“sexting” — sending sexually explicit photos by text message. Specifically, the legislation would make it illegal for anyone younger than 17 to knowingly transmit sexually explicit photos by a computer, cell phone or other telecommunications device to anyone younger than 18. An offender could be fined up to $100 at the recommendation of a family court judge and solicitor, but could not be arrested, or placed in jail or a juvenile facility. Under current law, a minor convicted of sexting can be charged with a felony crime. The House bill would reduce that penalty but still provide a negative consequence for offenders.
The Legislature meets Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in January through mid-June. If you need to reach me on those days, please contact the Columbia office, at 803-734-2999, 333C Blatt Building, P.O. Box 11867, Columbia, S.C. 29211. My email address in Columbia is HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”email@example.com.
On days when we are out of session, please contact the Chesterfield County Legislative Delegation Office, at 843-623-5001, 200 West Main Street, Chesterfield, S.C. 29709, or email me at HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”email@example.com.