Talking Trash

Laws with catchy monikers arouse a natural sense of suspicion. It is unlikely that the Patriot Act would have curried much favor with the American patriots of the 1770s, for example; and who can tell how many children have been left behind by the No Child Left Behind law. Thus, when the Business Freedom to Choose Act made its way successfully through the State House last month, our first concern was how many choices local businesses might be losing.

Right away, South Carolina counties saw the bill, which restricts their ability to direct the flow of solid waste disposal, as an attack on Home Rule. The S.C. Association of Counties quickly circled the wagons, fielding resolutions from all 46 county governments opposing the bill. As the bill has taken shape, however, it has become more and more clear that the law is less about a business’s freedom to choose than it is about government’s ability to squeeze that business out of business. Particularly, someone in the solid waste disposal business.

Counties really have no one but one of their own – Horry County – to blame for this legislation. Prior to 2009, a local businessman had made a good living for himself picking up waste in Horry County and dumping it at his facility in neighboring Marion County. Looking for a piece of the action, Horry County got into the waste disposal business themselves, then passed an ordinance mandating that all waste picked up in their county must be disposed of in their county dump, and followed that by levying exorbitant fees on private industry using their dump. In essence, Horry County legislated a monopoly for themselves. Of all the good things a government can do, this is not one of them. And anyone who’s ever seen a single episode of The Sopranos should know to never underestimate the waste management industry. Never, ever.

The Association of Counties’ trepidation is not without cause, however. Language in the original version of the bill could have been construed to legislate counties out of the waste business altogether, as well as dissolve their ability to zone where landfills are situated, what kind they are and how big they are. That language has since been removed, and if it was done so as a result of the uproar created by the Association, the Association should count that as a victory. The most recent, and what we hope to be final, version of the bill does not prevent counties from picking up and disposing of their own solid waste, should they so choose; nor does it prevent counties from zoning where landfills go. It does, however, prevent counties from creating a monopoly on solid waste the way Horry County did.

An even greater victory, perhaps, should both sides choose to embrace the underlying lesson here, would be more open communications between our local governments and our delegation in the General Assembly. What 46 counties and their corresponding Association, along with 170 members of the General Assembly, failed to do over the course of several months, this newspaper was able to do in a matter of a few hours – that is, pick up the phone, talk to both sides and get to the root of the issue.

That is not to suggest that our inquiries into the nature of this bill in any way affected its current language. It does, however, suggest that talking is always better than not talking.

South Carolinians are a unique lot, particularly when it comes to who tells who what to do. In a conflict that was largely initiated by our countrymen in the North, our state was instrumental in getting the King of England off our backs in the mid-1770s and early 1780s. More infamously, there was a certain bit of unpleasantness in the 1860s when our disagreements with the federal government reached total critical mass and we decided to start shooting at them.

Maybe none of those conflicts could have been resolved with a few simple phone calls; but, then again, the telephone wasn’t actually invented until 1876.

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