Monday, January 17, 2011

Bill drafted to reform Education Finance Act

Bluffton Today

First week back was shortened and modified by the inauguration of constitutional officers, as well as the weather. The speaker was prudent in delaying the start of proceedings until later in each day as there was a fair amount of snow and ice still on the ground, making getting around somewhat treacherous.

One feature of the first week which was not truncated was a mammoth six-hour Ways and Means Committee meeting. We heard testimony from a number of folks representing different departments and study groups, mostly trying to put the best face on grim news.

Since this is the first week of a new session that seems likely to be dominated by the necessity to fit the needs of the state into a dramatically smaller fiscal box, the Ways and Means Committee is starting early and will focus hard on making our downsizing as painless as possible.

One small bit of good news is that a sub-committee of Ways and Means is already drafting legislation to change the Education Finance Act (EFA). At first blush, this proposal would increase the number of dollars repatriated to Beaufort County something like $4 million to $7 million per year over what we
received for the last several years, which was zero dollars.

This is due to the flawed formulas in the EFA, about which you have heard me rail on any number of occasions. As the economy has deteriorated, the formulas have been skewed so that more counties have been cut out of significant school funding, which has made their lawmakers somewhat more sympathetic to our predicament in Beaufort County.

Unfortunately, the situation with the EFA also involves other issues having to do with certain counties having multiple school districts within their counties. For example, Spartanburg County has seven school districts, whereas we have a single district but serve roughly the same number of students.

I won’t say that this is gaming the system, but it does have that effect. If it was up to me, we would divide the number of school dollars by the number of public school students, assign each student a share, and have those funds follow the child. While that approach is somewhat simplistic, it may be a good starting point.

It is certainly preferable to the unmanageable complexity we have created with our current system. For the present, your delegation will strive for parity in funding, with an eye toward ultimately reforming the system as part of a more comprehensive overhaul of general taxation.

Two of the buzzwords we are hearing now are “transparency” and “efficiency.” In most of what we do, the latter is impossible without the former being in place. If we can’t get a good read on what the different universities are doing with their tax dollars, we certainly can’t make too much progress on the efficiency front.

Other initiatives we are likely to see in this session are a revamp of the S.C. Taxpayers Bill of Rights as well as a move toward legislative oversight of new regulations put forward by unelected officials of state agencies.

We may also be looking seriously at shortening the session, which is something I have heard from more than a few of you on the home front.