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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Report Shows Huge Cost of Tax Breaks to South Carolina Public Schools -- Up 31% in Two Years

 My colleagues at Good Jobs First released a new report today showing that South Carolina public schools are losing high, and rapidly rising, amounts of potential revenue to property tax abatements controlled solely by county governments.

Thanks to Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Statement #77 adopted in 2015, governments that passively lose income to "tax abatements" are required, in their Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, or CAFRs, to list the total losses annually. Passive losses occur when they are the result of the actions of another governmental unit. The most common scenario for this comes about when a municipal or county government gives a property tax break to a company, and overlaying taxing units (school, library, or ambulance districts, for example) are required to also waive their portion of the property taxes abated.

“The Revenue Impact of Corporate Tax Incentives on South Carolina Public Schools” shows that in South Carolina, these passive losses are happening with a vengeance. The state's public school districts collectively lost a total of $423 million to property tax abatements in fiscal year (FY) 2019. That's 31% more than in 2017, an absolute increase of $99 million in just two years.

Some of the biggest losses were in the poorest school districts, as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches. Six of these districts lost more than $2000 per student, including four that had majority Black plus Latino student populations.

“Our members struggle to teach in crumbling schools with poor heating and cooling systems and a lack of reliable internet connections,” said South Carolina Education Association President Sherry East. “It baffles me to continuously hear we don’t have enough money to fund our schools, yet this report shows we are diverting huge pots of money that could be available if we just consider tax reform in South Carolina.” (From the Good Jobs First press release.)

 This situation has been developing for over 20 years. Reporter Jay Hancock of The Baltimore Sun described South Carolina in 1999 as having "crumbling" schools that sometimes flooded in rainstorms. Despite the problems apparent even then, the state has continued to be an aggressive pursuer of new companies (Boeing and Alenia/Vought are two Megadeal-sized example).

What can be done? The report's top recommendation is to exclude school districts from any incentive deal. This is what California did in 2012-2014 when then-Governor Jerry Brown spearheaded the abolition of tax increment financing (TIF) and signed off on a much-modified version that prohibited the use of school funds in TIFs, as well as allowing all other overlaying jurisdictions to opt out.

The second recommendation is to cap the duration (currently up to 40 years!) and cost of tax abatements, to at least reduce their outsize impact on schools. Finally, better transparency from county and municipal governments on the costs and outcome measures of subsidies can lead to improved policy in the future.

The research here is part of Good Jobs First's updating of its landmark 2018 report, The New Math on School Finance, which was the first to use GASB-77 data to address the impact of tax incentives on school budgets.

Note to the reader: I was not part of this research. But stay tuned...

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