Originally created 01/17/04

Focus to move to schools



AIKEN - Since the legislative session kicked off last week, South Carolina lawmakers have been hard at work, butthey will soon have to focus on a number of high-profile education bills.

Bills that range from eliminating the ability of local school districts to raise property taxes to fund education to scrapping the Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive program will be considered.

"The property tax issue will be big, but there are a lot of different proposals. I also think the TERI program will be looked at and either tweaked or adjusted," said Rep. Ronald Townsend, R-Abbeville, the chairman of the House Education Committee.

One of the first education-oriented bills the House will review would allow a 1-cent local option sales tax to help pay for new school construction, said state Rep. Ken Clark, R-Aiken and Lexington.

"It's a serious problem with the state growing so rapidly and with school districts having reduced budgets; this could really save them," he said.

Molly Spearman, the South Carolina Department of Education's deputy superintendent for governmental affairs, agrees.

"That bill is a top priority for us," she said.

Some lawmakers want to see the TERI program, which allows teachers with at least 28 years of experience to collect retirement benefits while working for an additional five years, changed or eliminated.

The biggest piece of education-related legislation won't come into play until mid-February, when lawmakers look at a bill introduced by House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, R-Richland, and state Rep. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw.

Mr. Quinn and Mr. Sheheen propose to substitute local property tax support for schools by increasing the statewide sales tax from 5 percent to 7 percent, eliminating a crucial lever of autonomy for school districts and making them totally dependent on state money.

A bill by Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, the chairman of House Ways and Means Committee, would also eliminate local school property taxes, increasing the sales tax to 6 percent and abolishing the property tax on cars.

"Harrell's bill could grow legs, and the Quinn-Shaheen bill has the potential to do well," said state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, the chairman of the K-12 Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Reach Peter G. Gilchrist at (803) 648-1395.