Monday, March 15, 2010

It’s hard to make cuts when everything needs more money

Bluffton Today

We continue to work the budget and try to salvage some level of reasonable continuity in the functions of the state. The current scarcity of dollars makes for mostly hard decisions. We are going over the particulars of the requests of each department in excruciating detail hoping to leave the most essential capabilities intact while paring the less essential.

This is the most difficult part of my job and possibly the most important.

We heard from nearly 400 of you in the last week, largely on budgetary matters. A significant portion of those calls and emails concerned what many perceive as a disproportionate hit to the finances of the Disability and Special Needs Department in comparison to education and some other areas. I am acutely aware that some programs, especially those programs for autistic and other special-needs children, require a certain continuity of care if the participants are to improve.

Part of my effort on behalf of these threatened programs is to constantly research the federal budget for areas where we might take our dollars and match them to U.S. Health and Human Services’ grants, thereby providing at least a floor under the level of care required by our most vulnerable.

I may have located an extra $200 million from the federal government that we must dedicate to autistic and other special-needs populations. I am on this one.

There is currently a proposal on the table to raise the cigarette tax a very modest 30 cents per pack. Other proposals seek higher taxes on cigarettes, which would then be dedicated to a variety of worthy purposes. If cigarette taxes were simply another pot of money to feed the machinery of the state, I probably could not support such a proposal.

The idea that we can tax ourselves out of a recession doesn’t hold much favor with me. However, my belief is that the cigarette tax is in truth a user fee, which should be dedicated to addressing the health consequences of those who smoke. We should raise the cigarette tax to a meaningful level and use those dollars to fund our match to the federal Medicaid program, especially since the poor are disproportionately smokers and diminished accordingly by its damage.

The added benefit to this would be that over time the cost per pack increase would reduce the number of people who choose to smoke, primarily young people who have generally less discretionary income. We would collect less money for Medicaid but our costs would also be lower.

Another area we are exploring is reducing education costs by limiting the number of school districts in the state. The overhead associated with having multiple school districts in a county is essentially taking money out of the classroom. Zero-based budgeting from the classroom up is, for me, one of the answers to the school funding conundrum. We should direct resources first to the classroom and teachers first, and then our money should make its way up to the higher echelons of administration.

I have been actively seeking support for this common-sense approach from the South Carolina Education Association. So far, I have been disappointed.

Next week, it’s more budget Monday through Friday. I will be there for every minute of it, not only to do what’s right for the state, but also to protect Beaufort County and District 118 in preserving what we have.