The State Law Enforcement Division has 16,000 licensed alcohol stores to regulate.
Yet the state’s largest law enforcement agency only has two people assigned to enforce the state’s alcohol laws, the result of years of shrinking budgets as lawmakers cut spending during the Great Recession.
The story is the same at many other state agencies, officials say. Slashed budgets, cut services and laid-off workers.But for state agency directors, the message from Gov. Nikki Haley’s office is clear: Don’t expect your budgets to grow much when the economy and state revenues recover.
"Any additional revenue dollars that fall should either go to pay back debt or go back to the people that paid it -- and that’s in the pocket of taxpayers," Haley said last week. "So what we need to do is not think that this extra money means we can go out and spend it and have fun. It means that we need to make sure we don’t get back into the situation that we were in before this last legislative session."
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For state agency directors, that means getting creative. -- SLED has trained local law enforcement agencies to enforce state alcohol laws. The Columbia Police Department, for example, is seeking SLED training for the department’s newly created hospitality team.
"These are the problems state government has a responsibility to take care of that you never read about ... because it sounds better to say, ‘We’re either going to cut taxes or pay off debt,’" said state Rep. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun and the House minority leader. "That sounds good, but, in reality, we’ve got some serious issues in the state of South Carolina that need to be addressed."
Traditionally, state government’s budget has binged and purged. In good times, when state revenues are growing, spending grew strongly, whether to pay for new programs or tax cuts, such as the elimination of school taxes on homes. In bad times, the cuts are draconian. State spending on K-12 education was cut from $2,500 a student to less than $2,000 during the Great Recession, for example.Haley says she wants to break that cycle, even if the state’s economy improves.
Asked if the first-year governor wants to leave state agency budgets at current levels, spokesman Rob Godfrey essentially said yes."The governor believes this is an opportunity for each agency to get back to its core mission by making the same tough budget decisions that hardworking families make -- and this way, they’ll never end up in this position again."
‘I’m having to let people go’
Haley could be setting up a fight with the Legislature, where a bipartisan majority -- of moderate Republicans and Democrats -- clearly wants to restore some spending. That was demonstrated by legislators’ passage of a budget for this year that increased state general fund spending by $1 billion from Great Recession levels as the economy weakly improved.
But some state agencies say they simply need more money now. To get it, they are proposing creative ways to increase their budgets.The State Forestry Commission, for example, was one of 11 state agencies that did not have its budget cut this last budget cycle, according to State Forrester Gene Kodama. Lawmakers also gave the agency $3.5 million in one-time money to replace equipment. But Kodama said the agency still needs more money to replace aging equipment that makes it difficult and unsafe for it to fight forest fires, such as the one that recently devastated parts of the Grand Strand.
Kodama said he needs about $4.5 million a year to buy new equipment. Without the money, Kodama said the Forestry Commission "will not have capacity to provide adequate control for forest fires" in a year with more fires than usual.South Carolina insurance companies pay state taxes on insurance premiums -- including premiums on property insurance policies that include fire protection. That money goes into the state’s general fund. Kodama wants a portion of those taxes to be diverted to the Forestry Commission to help it fight forest fires.
But the state has a continuing budget crisis that could grow if the federal government gives less money to states in the future, as appears likely as part of any deficit deal. That means for one agency to ask to reduce revenue -- state taxes on property tax premiums -- that now goes to pay for all state operations will be a tough sell. So Kodama has proposed to take a portion -- 7 percent -- of the growth in the insurance premium taxes.
Kodama said the change would restore $8 million to his agency’s budget -- money that had been stripped from the agency during the last three years. State Reps. Tracey Edge, R-Horry, Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, and David Hiott, R-Pickens, sponsored a bill in April to make the change. Now, the bill is awaiting a public hearing from a House Ways and Means subcommittee.A second option for Kodama is to reduce how much the agency pays to county governments. The Forestry Commission owns land throughout the state from which it harvests and sells timber. Because it is state owned, the commission does not pay property taxes on the land to counties.
Instead, the commission gives the counties 25 percent of the price of the timber that it sells off its land. But Kodama said that amount is more than counties would get in property taxes if the land was owned privately. Kodama said he is working on legislation to cut the local payments to 6 percent of the timber’s sales price, allowing the Forestry Commission to hold on to more of money from timber sales."The reason I’m having to let people go, and losing firefighters right and left, and can’t buy fuel for tractors and can’t repair the tractors is I’m having to give $600,000 to $700,000 to the counties," Kodama said. "We don’t want to stop doing it. We believe we should be accommodating (counties) for lost property taxes, just not at the tune of four to five times property taxes."
Hard-pressed counties, also impacted by the recession, likely feel otherwise. If the Forestry Commission cuts their income, they will have to cut services, raise taxes or get similarly creative, handing the bill -- and problem -- to someone else.
Backlog in SLED lab
Other state agencies say they have needs that must be addressed as well.For example, the State Law Enforcement Division has amassed a backlog of 4,500 cases in its forensic crime lab, mostly in its DNA lab, which has lost 30 workers, according to Maj. Todd Huey.
"We try to live within our means as much as we can. But, some things, we’re going to have to have some help on," SLED Chief Mark Keel said. "Gov. Haley is also a big supporter of law enforcement and a big supporter of public safety. I have confidence that we’ll get support to get some help to put us back to where we need to be and fulfill the roles that SLED is supposed to be fulfilling."The state Department of Natural Resources, which has closed 16 offices statewide, says it needs help too.For example, the agency does not have the money to pay for studies of the state’s deer population, which director John Frampton says is dwindling.
Why should taxpayers care? Deer hunting is a major part of the state’s $2 billion-a-year hunting and fishing sector, which boosts depressed rural areas through land leases and retail sales.
"We realize too, it’s an election year. The economics in this state are not good. Is the timing right? It’s probably not," Frampton acknowledged. "(But) we need to begin those discussions with General Assembly and the governor’s office, and be prepared to have these increases at the appropriate time."
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.