Monday, March 9, 2009

'Business as usual, only smaller'

Bluffton Today

My dad used to say there are three kinds of Fairs: “There’s the State Fair; the County Fair; and what you think is fair.”

Until very recently, I didn’t know what he meant. I’m starting to get it.

As the budget begins to take shape in this extremely severe financial climate, the process is being largely driven by what is least unfair, perhaps by what is least catastrophic, not by normal budgetary considerations.

It is certainly unfair to close half the prisons—it’s unfair to the counties and municipalities to eviscerate their budgets by rolling our troubles downhill to them in the form of unacceptable levels of reductions in aid to subdivisions. It is unfair to deplete the resources that support the most vulnerable of our citizens who depend on the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs. It is unfair and shortsighted to gut our state support to schools.

What we being compelled to do is assemble a patchwork of one-time and short-term financial resources, and mold them into a budget that will allow state operations to move forward in something resembling business as usual, only smaller. For example, we have a huge insurance reserve fund, from which we will have to borrow. We can use the stimulus reimbursement for the Medicaid payment we have already made, as a one-time adjunct to the general fund. I have explained how we can use the cigarette tax as a two- year backfill to the budget.

Obviously, none of these stopgap measures give me any degree of comfort or satisfaction. I have been in the legislature long enough to remember the last time we had to “raid the trust funds.” It was not pretty then and took years to get sorted out. The practice of using non-recurring dollars to fund recurring expenses is one that I have railed against for years. Now, I sit on Ways and Means Committee trying to figure out the least damaging way to do what I have always opposed. Friends, we are truly living in interesting times.

One of the more encouraging aspects of this current economic dislocation has to do with the advise we get from the folks that come to visit us from the home front. Last week, we had a good contingent from the Beaufort County School Board up for a visit.

Chairman Washington and his colleagues didn’t come to Columbia asking for the world. They understand the situation, and a spirit of shared sacrifice, which we are seeing quite often of late, animated their visit and their advice. Likewise, we saw my county council friends, Jerry Stewart and Laura Von Harten last week. They had good suggestions as to how we might do more with less at the local level, while still not cutting too deeply into core functions of the county.

You may remember that I chair the Economic Development Subcommittee of Ways and Means. There are some bills of local concern that I have been working on with Kim Statler, Executive Director of the Lowcountry Economic Network, that are currently moving through subcommittee. These are jobs related measures about which I will have more to report as they advance toward the floor.