Monday, June 21, 2010

Budget reflects our core values

Bluffton Today

As promised, I want to make a few comments on the 2010-2011 budget. How we collect and spend the people’s money to do the people’s business is the most important criterion by which we in the General Assembly must be judged. Regardless of what you hear from any lawmaker, myself included, concerning political or economic philosophy, it is the budget that says what we truly believe. In a universe of potential expenditure, the budget speaks plainly of what we value.
In lean times, that which is valued least is the first to be jettisoned, while those things defined as “core functions” are preserved, even if they are diminished. In especially lean times, such as we are currently experiencing, even core functions are subject to evaluation. For example, in education, we always show a bias for the classroom teacher over the administrator, even though both are integral to the efficiency and integrity of education. In this, I believe we accurately reflect the priorities of those we represent.
Interestingly, there is a political movement gaining a foothold in our electoral process that demands, among other things, government that is smaller both in size and scope, that takes and uses fewer of our dollars while addressing those core functions realistically and effectively. I would suggest that at least in South Carolina, we in the General Assembly have more than anticipated those demands and produced truth-telling budgets to back it up.
Witness the fact that in the last two years, we have slashed spending from nearly $7 billion to less than $5 billion-- nearly a 30% decrease in the size of state government. There have been no general tax increases and this year there were no fee increases. Even with these draconian cuts, we have managed to fund what we believe are the core functions of government: education; law enforcement; and healthcare.
Even with this level of austerity, there are things that we think will create further cuts in future years. One of the more powerful cost cutting tools is requiring state agencies to begin with zero-based budgets next year. The potential results of this proviso are huge.
This is not to say that everyone was on board with these necessary budget cuts. In fact, if we total up all the proposed spending increases for this year alone, they come to an astounding $7 billion in spending increases. This would have returned school property taxes on homes, increased sales tax, as well as resulted in dramatic escalation of a variety of fees. Fortunately, the dominant political and economic philosophy in the House of Representatives and certainly within the Ways and Means Committee is some version of fiscal conservatism. While all fiscal conservatives don’t march in lockstep, we have a general agreement on what are indeed the core functions of government, and what is the bare minimum needed to keep the lights on. This year, I can say we tested those limits.
Next week, I will explain the dynamic that finally ended the current iteration of the Sembler matter. In weeks to come, I will also try to flesh out the implications of what passed this session and what we might be looking at next time around.