Editor’s note: Leading up to Election Day in November, we will bring you a series of stories in which we ask candidates to weigh in on issues they would have an opportunity to affect if elected. At various times, interviews will be conducted in-person, via phone and email. In instances when candidates answer questions by email, their responses are printed verbatim. For this story, the candidates submitted to what we call a “flash interview,” in which they come to our office on short notice to answer questions for 30 minutes.
The Libertarian Party candidate for S.C. House District 26 said the state should legalize cannabis and release prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug crimes from South Carolina jails as a way to create revenue and fund infrastructure projects.
“What if we went ahead and legalized marijuana in this state, and the state got the tax back?” said Jeremy Walters of Fort Mill.
“How much money would that bring in? How much money would that save if you released people from prison and let them go – as long as it was a nonviolent drug crime. And they’re in jail for how many years, for an average of $40,000 per inmate, and South Carolina has every intention of keeping them there?”
Walters’ opponent, Dist. 26 incumbent Raye Felder (R-Fort Mill) isn’t as eager to have South Carolina become the third U.S. state to legalize pot after Washington and Colorado. A handful of other states, including California, have made marijuana legal for medical uses.
“I don’t know that I’m ready to legalize marijuana,” Felder said. “I think we need to wait and see how it works out (for the other states). Hasn’t Colorado lost money on it?”
Since a law legalizing pot for recreational and medical use went into effect Jan. 1, Colorado could net $40 million in tax revenue by the end of the year, according to an analysis in Forbes magazine.
With an estimated $1 billion needed in South Carolina for rebuilding bridges and roads, and making new roads, Felder said the Legislature has been setting money aside to address the needs incrementally.
“Certainly we in Fort Mill are aware of the need to improve the infrastructure because it’s such a fast-growing part of the state. And we’ve set aside $50 million, and that will allow us to borrow another $500 million (from the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank) to address the needs,” she said.
Felder defeated Walters by 656 votes – 5,899 to 5,243 – when the two ran in 2012 in the first election after District 26 was created. She ran as a petition candidate after an obscure violation forced her and dozens of other primary winners off the ballot. Felder, running this year as a Republican, said she is in favor of “considering” raising the state’s 16-cent per gallon gasoline tax, which is third lowest in the nation.
“It might be time,” she said.
Walters said if he’s elected to the S.C. House, he would vote against raising the gas tax.
“I myself as a Libertarian am not for increasing any taxes. What we need to do in the state of South Carolina is (ask) ‘What can we cut out of this state (budget)?’ ”
He also criticized the Legislature’s plan to work with the Infrastructure Bank.
“This (money) is borrowed from a a bank, so it has to be paid back. Your roads are going to put chains on our children,” he said.
“I think what we need to do is hire forensic accountants that are independent first and go through our budgets on the roads. And before any decision is made on where going we’re going to spend a single dime, first, we the people of South Carolina, need to find out where the money has gone to on our roads. They say ‘you can’t find a pothole in Charleston.’ ”
The candidates were asked about a recent free dental clinic held in Rock Hill that drew more than 1,400 residents from across the state. Fort Mill dentists who volunteered their time at the two-day clinic said hundreds of others had to be turned away, and that they are in favor of the state expanding Medicaid to include dental coverage for low-income and underinsured residents.
Felder said she wouldn’t oppose extending coverage if there were a way to fund it without raising taxes. Walters rejects the idea entirely.
“That’s a big problem – where does the money come from?” Felder said.
She said a better idea is having the volunteers who held the recent clinic offer more free clinics.
“Medicaid already straps our state budget to such a great extent, but I do think in making the little changes that we’re making, by getting the groups and organizations together that can provide this service by somehow perhaps making this a routine event,” she said.
Walters has a different take.
“I think that medical costs and dental cost are just too high, and if they don’t come down, we’re never going to be able to afford it to begin with. We can’t pull money out of nowhere. We need to begin to think how to reduce this cost so people can afford (care).”
A carpenter by trade, Walters said builders and contractors agreed to lower costs after the 2008 recession crippled the construction industry. He thinks health care providers should do the same.
“I can’t pull money out of a hat,” he said. “Where are you going to get the money? They all got together (in construction) and made a price and stuck to it. Everything has gone up, but salaries have gone down for the average person. Something has to be done.”