Two municipal leaders will square off in June for an open Statehouse seat representing the region’s popular East Cooper beach communities and a healthy portion of Mt. Pleasant. With no Democrat filing for the seat, the primary match between Isle of Palms Mayor Mike Sottile and Mt. Pleasant Councilman Joe Bustos will likely decide who’s going to Columbia.
Much like the Democratic Presidential Primary playing out nationally, there’s little light between these two local GOP candidates. When asked what distinguishes one from the other, it’s ironic that both men point to their experience.
Bustos, a town councilman since 2000, says his work in Mt. Pleasant has built a foundation for his Statehouse run — particularly the town’s $70 million budget, loads of capital projects, and efforts to plan ahead for revitalization projects not yet needed.
“I think the range of experiences within the municipal government has been far greater in Mt. Pleasant than on the Isle of Palms,” he says.
Sottile was elected to the Isle of Palms Town Council 18 years ago in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. The city was rebuilt “better than it was before,” he says. He was elected mayor in 2001.
“I feel like I’ve done it for a long time locally,” he says. “I’ve been the CEO of a city and responsible for a budget. I’ve got the leadership ability and the experience.”
Bustos says he has a record of no tax increases in Mt. Pleasant, while Isle of Palms has raised taxes in three of the last six years. Sottile says Mt. Pleasant hasn’t had to make the hard calls the Isle of Palms has and he notes it has been resident-supported projects that have required tax increases. Sottile has also recently signed a pledge not to increase taxes if elected to the legislature.
On tax reform, Sottile says the state moved in the right direction by lifting some of the burden off residential property owners but that more should be done for business and those with second homes or rental property to make sure they’re not left worse off because of it.
“There should be some benefits or tax credits for those folks as well,” he says.
Bustos says property and income taxes need to be further reduced, either through budget cuts or more offsets in the sales tax. Putting more money in taxpayers’ hands gives them more to spend.
“Money moving through businesses will grow the economy,” he says.
Bustos also has been a leader on conservation in Mt. Pleasant, he says, leading the charge to purchase land on Shem Creek where condos were thought imminent. It’s now expected to be park space.
Sottile agrees conservation should be a priority but that regulations should be practical and not too restrictive.
“The state’s first plan (regarding beach erosion) is to retreat,” Sottile says. “A condo can’t retreat.”
Both candidates support the state’s efforts to require business owners to confirm the legal status of their employees but recognize that it’s not going to solve the problem.
“The number one problem is that the federal government hasn’t done its job,” Sottile says.
The legislature has debated a 30- to 50-cent increase in the state’s cigarette tax — the lowest in the nation at 7 cents — but it’s unclear whether it will be able to get anything passed this year. Sottile says he’d be open to looking at a cigarette tax hike depending on how the money’s spent. Bustos says the money would have to offset some other tax, a point of contention for legislators looking to spend the money on health care costs instead of a tax cut.
A recent decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court that upheld municipal smoking bans has tobacco industry lobbyists putting pressure on the legislature to create a more lenient statewide law. Both candidates support local governments enforcing their own bans.
“That’s the beauty of home rule, and I think the local municipalities should be able to handle it locally,” Sottile says.
The candidates praise fellow Republican Ben Hagood for his service to the district, both citing Hagood’s push for municipal cooperation over his years in the legislature.
“You have to be self-sufficient, but you have to plan with your neighbors,” Bustos says.
The legislature is still wrangling with this year’s budget cuts, and next year isn’t looking much better. The state should focus on targeted cuts, Bustos says, rather than a flat percentage cut from every department.
“The salami slice, across-the-board reduction may reduce things that should not be reduced and you may not reduce things that should be reduced more,” he says. “We should go line by line. I don’t think we do that enough.”
Bustos is open to school choice proposals that would include some form of aid for students who want to attend private schools. He’s unsure whether that would include tax credits, school vouchers, or private contributions.
“If we’re going to get up off the bottom, we need to improve education and get industry here and that depends on the job pool,” he says.
The steady stream of tourists driving into the district is an important priority for the district —and a revenue source for the state. Sottile says he’ll protect tourism dollars, particularly in light of the legislature’s recent raid on advertising coffers to balance the budget.
“That’s really the only industry we have (on the Isle of Palms),” he says. “You’ve got to convince your counterparts in the Upstate … that tourism has a tremendous impact on state revenue.”
As companies continue to run from the coastal insurance market, Sottile, who’s an independent insurance agent, says more needs to be done to bring companies in and drive the cost down.
“There are some people who decide where to live based on the taxes and insurance,” he says.
Sottile says he’ll focus his efforts on public/private partnerships as a way to keep taxes down, pointing to the IOP’s recent beach renourishment, paid in large part by the property owners affected.
The geography of the district works against Sottile, he admits. Just a few thousand residents live on the Isle of Palms, compared with more than 27,000 voters in the district — and most of those are on Bustos’ home turf.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time in Mt. Pleasant,” Sottile says.
But Bustos isn’t taking anything for granted with the primary coming just as voters head on vacation.
“People need to know it’s on June 10 and to file absentee ballots if they have to,” he says.
For more information, visit www.mikesottile.com or find Bustos on MySpace and Facebook.