Monday, February 21, 2011

Budget cutting has human cost

Bluffton Today

As the budget portion of the legislative session is winding down, we are hearing from quite a number of you; specifically, 412 contacts last week. With significantly fewer dollars to spend, local recipients of state funding are justifiably concerned over what they may expect in the next fiscal year. My friend Jeannie Owens at Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, The Children’s Advocacy, and Rape Crisis Center makes a very compelling case for being held harmless in the current round of budgeting.

The same is true for the folks at Health and Human Services, our hardworking school boards, as well as the Medicaid administrators. We get that the needs are serious and growing. We also get that when you only have a set amount of resources, without recourse to deficit spending, sometimes even the most worthy features of our system will be diminished. I am painfully aware that there are human consequences to what we do here. Maybe some can look at this process as some kind of bookkeeping exercise, but your representative is not one of them.

I know that three speech therapy sessions a week for an autistic child makes for more progress than only one session. I know that enough proper catheters and pressure bandages for the bed-bound Medicaid patient are crucial for any kind of quality of life. I get it. What I also know is that I can’t let the saddening particulars of retrenchment blind me to the absolute necessity of organizing our finances to do the most with what we have, while at the same time working on reforming and reorganizing our system to provide more efficient and cost-effective service to those that depend on us.

There is some good news on the Education Finance Act (EFA) front, particularly with regard to the “taxpayers ability to pay” feature that has essentially cut Beaufort County out for so long. I have been able to shepherd a package of changes to the EFA through subcommittee and full committee to a point where we have a very good shot at repatriating a fair number of school tax dollars back to Beaufort County schools, both charter and traditional. Right now, we are looking at an additional $3 million to $7 million in taxes coming back to our schools.

Admittedly, even the higher number is not a large percentage of our current school expenditure. It is, however, a start. It is also a precedent-setting change that we can build on. It is also something that your representative and your delegation have pledged to accomplish. It is a significant and important aspect of our donor status relative to other counties that must be reversed in the interest of parity and fairness. I was pleased to receive visits to the State House from Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, Councilman Oliver Brown and Bluffton Town Manager Anthony Barrett.

We also had a contingent from Hilton Head Island including Councilman George Williams, Councilwoman Kim Likens and Hilton Head Town Manager Steve Riley. The conversation was productive and had to do largely with those many issues that two municipalities as closely associated as Bluffton and Hilton Head seem to produce.

One topic of interest was the future of the Heritage, and what role, if any, there might be for the state in preserving this critical job-creating, tourism dynamo. There are a few Heritage pots boiling, and I will report as soon as there is anything promising.