IN ALL THE excitement over the big Boeing coup, it was easy - if you have a job - to forget for a moment about our state's dire fiscal and economic situation.
But while Boeing very likely will be a transformative force, that transformation will come over years and decades, as suppliers follow the aeronautics giant to our state in much the same way that automotive suppliers followed BMW, and then research programs spin off and a whole new impression is formed about our state both internally and externally. Even the 2,000 temporary construction jobs won't feel like 2,000 jobs, because some won't come open until others are finished.
And our economy needs help now, a fact that was underscored last week when the state Board of Economic Advisors slashed another $120 million off its revenue projections for the current fiscal year. This is the third time the board has cut its projections since the budget year started July 1, dropping the budget to $5.6 billion - down from $7.2 billion just two years ago.
The cut upon cut upon cut has become so predictable and so numbing that few people in the emaciated state agencies that will have to slim down even more have bothered protesting the next round of mid-year budget cuts that this latest forecast almost certainly will trigger, or the next round of cuts that the Legislature almost certainly will have to make in next year's budget.
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But as devastating as more cuts will be for our state's ability to run a safe prison system and keep decent teachers in the classrooms and do all those other things that a state must do, and as difficult as they will be on all those additional state employees who will lose their jobs as a result, the state budget problem is merely a side effect of the even larger problem: an 11.7 percent jobless rate - a number that is artificially low because it doesn't count all those people who have given up on finding a job, or who can find only part-time work - that reasonable people believe will climb to at least 13 percent. An economy that even at its best relied too heavily on tourism and other low-paying jobs, resulting in one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the nation. Generations upon generations of poverty, in a society that never has sufficiently valued the education that is essential to ever rise above that poverty.
Clearly, the national recession that is driving up unemployment and driving down spending is largely beyond the control of state leaders. But that doesn't mean they have no role to play. How well our state recovers will be influenced by how well they make those budget cuts: Do they just lop more off the top of every agency's budget, or do they finally get serious about using the limited funding to make a government that does fewer things better? How well our state recovers will be influenced by how well they are able to convince businesses and would-be businesses that South Carolina is a good place to be. They put on their best Sunday manners for Boeing; they have to do the same for other prospective recruits. And more importantly, they have to demonstrate that they understand the importance of a long-term commitment to creating a well-educated workforce - something that our state never has done.
These are not easy things to do, and this is by no means a complete list of the tasks facing our lawmakers. What that means is that now more than ever, we cannot afford for our leaders to be distracted - by Mark Sanford, by the voucher fight, by partisan gamesmanship and finger pointing, by pandering to special interests. We must have focused, big-picture leadership that is committed to doing the hard work needed to improve our state. And we must have it now.