Editorial: Senate must fund cities, counties, or free them to fund themselves

05/05/2014 9:00 PM

05/05/2014 6:13 PM

SENATE BUDGET writers have made a clear statement about the value they place on public education, supporting both Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to increase reading-focused funding on poorer school districts and Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s plan to expand access to 4-year-old kindergarten.

Both programs are much-needed and long-overdue, and by funding the top education initiatives of the competing candidates for governor, senators send a strong message about how important it is to recognize that good ideas can come from both political parties, and to support those good ideas.

The problem with the budget plan the full Senate is scheduled to start debating today isn’t that it makes education its priority. That’s what it should do. It’s not even that it had to deemphasize other spending areas in order to do that; if you’re going to increase funding in one part of the budget, your only options are to decrease it elsewhere or else raise additional revenue. The problem is what the Finance Committee decided to deemphasize.

Most of the $24 million senators added to the House budget for public education came from the money legislators are required by law to send to cities and counties, to help them pay for state services that other state laws require them to provide. Even the amount the House appropriated was less than what state law requires — as has been the case since the recession — making the Finance Committee’s cut all the more unacceptable.

This is not the same as legislators deciding to cut spending on DHEC or the Corrections Department or any other state agency, for which legislators clearly are responsible. This is legislators refusing to pay their obligations. It’s not much different than legislators refusing to pay a bill from a private company it contracts with to provide state services.

Worse, lawmakers have tied the hands of city and county officials, by limiting their ability to raise taxes. That means that senators propose shifting the bill and the burden of their decisions to local officials: Rather than deciding what among their priorities not to fund, they tell local governments that they must spend less money, which means local officials must decide what among their priorities not to fund. But of course they still have to fund all those things that state law requires them to fund — even as legislators ignore the state law that tells them how much money they must provide to do that.

There are three components of local government funding that are beyond the control of the locally elected officials who must balance their budgets: There are services state law requires them to provide. There is money the Legislature provides them, ostensibly to pay for providing those services. And there is a limit on how much they can raise their taxes.

Legislators would be within their rights to reduce the funding they provide local governments — if they either reduced the demands they make on local governments or else lifted the taxing constraints on local governments. But it is irresponsible and immoral to cut funding without doing one of those things.

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