South Carolina Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ted Pitts brought the organization's "grassroots listening tour" to Lander University on Thursday. 

With the General Assembly midway through its two-year session, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce has already scored several major victories.

There was the bump in starting pay from $32,000 to $35,000 for first-year teachers and a 4% across-the-board raise for the more than 52,000 veteran educators currently in public school classrooms.

Lawmakers also took strides to streamline the state’s arcane tax system and incentivized the Carolina Panthers to construct a practice facility in Rock Hill.

On Thursday, Chamber President and CEO Ted Pitts — a former state House member — said more work needs to be done in the areas of education and tax reform to assure long-term economic stability.

For example, he said, the state’s top marginal sales tax rate of 7% is the highest in the Southeast, while South Carolina ranks 13th nationally in its industrial property tax burden.

“As we look at the state and how we compete with our neighbors in the Southeast, there are some things we need to do to make us more competitive. When we do good, people are like, ‘The system must be fine, with Boeing, Volvo, BMW and all those guys who came here and seem to be making it work,’” Pitts said at Lander University in Greenwood.

“Well, the reality is, the big companies that move to the state that bring jobs here and a lot of capital investment, they don’t follow the tax code that the rest of South Carolina has to follow,” he said. “When you look at our tax code, yeah, it works for economic development in a lot of ways right now. But not because of our tax code, in spite of our tax code, with all the workarounds that exist.”

Pitts said the income tax disparity puts the state at a competitive disadvantage. He added South Carolina is the nation’s least unionized workforce.

“When you’re looking at corporate HQs and other types of industry, it’s a metric on their spreadsheet — especially when Tennessee, Florida and Texas is at zero, North Carolina and Georgia are going below 5%. I mean, it matters,” he said.

State chamber officials will visit 20 sites as part of a listening tour that will help the agency compile its 2020 competitiveness legislative agenda.

And while various regions rank some issues higher than others, there are similarities that can’t be ignored, Pitts said.

That includes wider access to broadband internet and affordable workforce housing programs to support incoming businesses and their employees.

“You can go to smaller, rural communities you can come to mid-market communities or the really fast-growing area like York County, and they all say yes,” lack of housing is a problem, Pitts said. “There’s not a lot of new stock on the market and what is available is very expensive, because of limited supply.”

H. 3998, the “Workforce and Senior Affordable Housing Act,” is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee after moving through the House on April 10.

The measure would create a tax credit for qualified projects, encouraging more construction that will benefit sector leaders, Pitts said.

“We worked on some initiatives with folks in the legislature about creating new opportunities for workforce housing, it is something I think is being talked about A lot of it is being driven by the larger markets, but we need to think about whatever solutions get put in place, they think about the middle markets and also the small markets of the state,” he said.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.