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Legislator’s father elected to board after protest

COLUMBIA (AP) — The Legislature elected a House member’s father to the Medical University of South Carolina board on May 15 after he agreed to pay higher property taxes at his beach home.

Senators had threatened to walk out of a joint session of the General Assembly rather than participate in electing Dr. Murrell Smith, who has lived and delivered babies in Sumter for more than three decades. The father of Rep. Murrell Smith Jr. was the lone candidate remaining for the board seat representing the 5th Congressional District.

He becomes the 10th person with ties to legislators to be elected by the Legislature to a college board this year. The positions don’t carry a salary but by state law, members get a per diem of $35 per meeting and money for meals.

Sen. Brad Hutto suggested the Senate not participate, accusing Dr. Smith of using a legal loophole to avoid higher taxes at his Charleston County beach home.

“If the Senate shows up, we have offered our stamp of approval to a tax evader and that is wrong,” said Hutto, D-Orangeburg. “We’ve got to hold ourselves to a certain standard. Our family members shouldn’t be penalized for that, but they shouldn’t thumb their nose at us either.”

Rep. Smith, R-Sumter, stressed that his mother owns the Isle of Palms home — his dad is not on the deed — and they paid the lower tax rate there as allowed by law. He pointed to attorney general opinions regarding residency for officeholders, saying where someone primarily lives is his home.

But Hutto argued that if Dr. Smith wants to represent a district that includes Sumter, he needs to pay the 4 percent, owner-occupied property tax rate at his home there. Second homes are taxed at the higher, 6 percent assessment rate.

Dr. Smith told a legislative screening committee last month that he saved $2,000 overall in property taxes by his wife citing Isle of Palms as their primary residence. On a 5-3 vote, the committee found him qualified for the post, with senators voting “no” in the rare split. Hutto noted that the doctor appeared before the committee three times, with residency being the holdup.

“This is easily solvable. All he has to do is switch his taxes,” Hutto said, adding he should have gotten the hint already.

Before the vote occurred, Dr. Smith agreed to do so. Hutto then walked back from his comments and called for the Legislature to support Smith.

“I believe Dr. Smith is a very, very qualified candidate,” Hutto told the joint session. “The issue is one of confusion.”

But the threatened protest should serve as a warning to future candidates, he said.

Dr. Smith did not attend the election due to the controversy.

Rep. Smith said his father will immediately take steps to change to a 4 percent tax rate in Sumter. The paperwork should be in place before he assumes his seat on the board this summer, he said.

“He did not expect this to be an issue,” said Smith, a House member since 2001. He said he knew there would be criticism regarding his father running for a legislatively elected position but didn’t expect this.

“It’s obviously politics. Nobody likes for family members to be criticized, but it was probably more uncomfortable for my father, who is imminently qualified,” Smith said.

 

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