RALEIGH — A sales tax bill which would benefit public schools failed to gain traction in the N.C. Senate, but one local official said the bill is far from dead.
“I don’t quit when it comes to something I believe in and something which will help our community,” said Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips.
Phillips worked with N.C. Sen. Shirley Randleman, the Wilkes County Republican who represents Surry County in the Senate, to introduce a bill which would alter the allowed use of an Article 43 sales tax.
Under the current statute, a one-quarter or one-half cent sales tax may be levied by counties and used for the purposes of public transportation. The legislation Phillips helped to draft, Senate Bill 166, would allow counties to levy the tax but use the dollars garnered for school capital projects.
Senate Bill 166 did not make it out of the Senate’s Rules Committee, however.
“It didn’t get on the radar quickly enough,” explained Randleman, who sponsored the bill. “I requested it be heard repeatedly.”
Randleman said the Rules Committee Chairman, Sen. Bill Rabon, of Brunswick County, makes the decision as to which bills move.
Senate Bill 166 would allow counties, by a vote of the people, to enact a one-quarter or one-half cent sales tax under Article 43 to fund school capital projects. Counties already levying the tax for use in public transportation would not be able to divert those funds away from transportation.
Phillips said the bill would go a long way in helping rural counties like Surry, which don’t levy the tax for public transportation, fund the facilities needs of public schools. In Surry County, a one-quarter percent sales tax would generate about $2 million annually.
The sales tax, in Phillips’ mind, is the best way to ensure all Surry County residents pay a share in ensuring the county’s three school districts have what they need to continue to provide an adequate education to youngsters.
“It’s far batter than the easy, lazy man’s way of just raising property taxes,” said Phillips after noting only 47 percent of residents in Surry County own property.
While 166 didn’t gain the traction it needed in the Senate, the N.C. House of Representatives did pass a bill regarding the Article 43 sales tax.
Phillips said House Bill 333 would allow more flexibility than Senate Bill 166. Dollars generated could be used on more than just capital needs, and a county board of commissioners could enact the tax by resolution, without a vote of the people.
That bill also was not heard by the full Senate.
Phillips said though he would like to see either one passed by both chambers and signed into law by the governor, he favors the Senate version because it would require county boards to take their case for increasing sales tax before the voters.
“What is missing from the discussions about school funding is the input from parents and the public,” said Phillips. “The public has to feel that we are being good stewards of their money, and a vote forces county boards and school boards to be accountable to them.”
Phillips said he has been told the Senate is more likely to take up Senate Bill 166 than the House version when the legislators return for the short session in May.
He is concerned, however, that if the bill becomes law, the Surry County Board of Commissioners has already hurt the chances of a sales tax referendum to enact the tax passing. The county budget included increases to the supplemental taxes levied to help fund the operations of the Mount Airy City Schools and the Elkin City Schools.
Phillips said passage of either version of the bill would go a long way in funding the capital needs of the county’s public school systems if voters pass a referendum.
“It is a lasting and viable solution to our needs,” added Phillips.
Randleman said her hopes are that Senate Bill 166 will see passage in the short session.
“We can’t let it drop off the radar between now and then,” said Randleman.
Phillips said House Bill 333 is proof of the concept’s bipartisan support. The bill passed that chamber by a vote of 103-11. It has left him optimistic and ready to continue to work.
“The legislative process can be frustratingly slow, but we are staying committed,” said Phillips, who noted Randleman has done a tremendous job in keeping the bill on the General Assembly’s radar.
“I’m all-in on this, and I’m not backing off one iota,” concluded Phillips.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.