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South Carolina Chamber of Commerce Annual Grassroots meeting held virtually
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South Carolina Chamber of Commerce Annual Grassroots meeting held virtually

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FLORENCE, S.C. – The Florence Chamber of Commerce and the Hartsville Chamber joined to present the South Chamber of Commerce Annual Grassroots Tour on Wednesday. This year’s meeting was held virtually through Zoom, because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.

Each fall, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce partners with regional and local chambers across the state on the chamber’s annual Grassroots Tour.  The tour allows the state chamber to hear from businesses from around the state on issues they are facing. The feedback received from the meetings from around the state will help shape the state chamber’s 2021 Competitiveness Agenda and set the chamber’s priorities for the 2021 legislative agenda.

Usually, the Florence and Hartsville chambers host their meeting at a large luncheon venue with about 150 area business leaders attending, said Mike Miller, president of the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce.

He and Murphy Monk, president of the Greater Hartsville Chamber of Commerce, welcomed members from both chambers to the Zoom meeting.

About 35 people signed on for the Zoom meeting.

Miller said the Grassroots program is also part of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce’s effort to share the past year’s legislative accomplishments at the state level and to talk about efforts to push certain legislative issues that may improve state and regional business opportunities.

The tours are conducted from August to October. In November the S.C. Board approves the 2021 agenda.

Ted Pitts, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce president, conducted the Zoom meeting.

Pitts said the Competitiveness Agenda includes the top items to take to our policy makers. One of the most important is infrastructure and roads.

One participant said North Carolina builds new roads and South Carolina tries to maintain present roads — hard to compete.

Looking back at the Competitiveness Agenda, Pitts said Comprehensive Tax Reform and Workforce Development were two top priorities in the past year.

The 2020 Competitiveness Agenda called for a Workforce for the Future and a Competitive Tax Code.

Pitts said a Business License Tax Bill passed the House and also passed the Senate subcommittee. It made it to the Senate Finance Committee before the coronavirus hit, he said.

An education bill passed in the Senate (passed the House in 2019). It is likely not moving, he said.

He said the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March and the legislative session was shortened.

The budget surplus is almost entirely wiped out, Pitts said.

He said the South Carolina Chamber released a COVID Relief and Recovery Agenda.

Pitts said $50 million of the CARES Act funding was allocated to broadband expansion and to students in rural school districts, and $500 million of CARES Act funding was allocated to the Unemployment Trust Fund.

What still needs to be accomplished in September?

Pitts said Senate needs to pass the Business License Tax Reform (H.4431) and the General Assembly needs to pass Liability Protections (H.5527). The House needs to pass E-Notary Act (S.486).

Another topic discussed at the meeting was property taxes in South Carolina.

The South Carolina property tax system is one of extremes — very low homestead rates and very high industrial rates, he said.

South Carolina ranks at the bottom, Pitts said, using the measure of one of the state’s largest cities. Charleston’s rank among the largest cities in the nation of property tax rate on primary homes is 50th lowest.

On the other side, Charleston’s rank among the largest cities in the nation on manufacturing property is fourth highest.

The amount apartments and rental property are taxed at over a primary home is three times more, the highest differential in the country.

Weighing in over Zoom, more than twice as many participants in the meeting said policymakers should look to reform property tax system protecting homeowners’ exemptions but making it fairer for rental and commercial properties.

Another topic Pitts said that is concerning people in South Carolina is the lack of internet access in rural areas of the state. This became more evident during the spring when students were learning from home.

He said more than half a million South Carolinians lack access to reliable broadband internet.

Pitts said 435,000 South Carolinians either don’t have access to internet in their home or have access to inadequate service.

He said there are 150,000 South Carolina student households without access to high-speed internet. There are 160,000 South Carolina students who either can’t afford the service or don’t have a computer.

Pitt also discussed education funding in South Carolina.

He said since Act 388 many school districts experience slow growth in property tax revenue. School districts in fast-growing counties had a significant decline in their total revenue per pupil, he said. South Carolina is the only state in the country which exempts primary homeowners from paying property taxes to fund school operating costs, Pitts said.

Nearly everyone at the meeting who responded said S.C. should look at more equitable measures to fund public education.

Another important issue in 2021 will be Criminal Justice Reform. Pitt said the S.C. House and Senate plan to address issues of equal justice and penalty reform in the 2021 session.

He said the business community has been involved in legislations giving non-violent ex-offenders a second chance to get a job and out of the criminal justice system.

When asked do you support legislation to reform penalties for non-violent offenses and to expand workforce re-entry opportunities for non-violent ex-offenders. Most answering the question said yes and a couple was not sure.

Pitts asked participants to name the top issues facing their company this year. The top issues were sales revenues, budget cuts, inability to host evens, member traffic, cash flow and skilled labor.

Pitts said he thinks the second quarter of 2021 will bring more of a since of normalcy.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. But he thinks the remainder of 2020 will be about the same as it is now.

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