WHEN MARK Sanford ran for governor in 2002, he proposed to increase our tax on gasoline and eliminate the state income tax. He didn’t claim it was a plan to save our roads. It was a plan to cut our taxes, plain and simple.
And that’s what Gov. Nikki Haley offered us in her State of the State address on Wednesday: a plan to cut taxes. Oh, she called it a plan to address what most businesses and lawmakers and many citizens consider our most urgent problem: our crumbling roads and bridges.
But it would cover barely a fifth of the need, and in reality it was just a warmed-over version of the Sanford plan. It should meet the same fate as the Sanford plan, which the Republican Legislature rejected, because lawmakers knew we could not afford a massive reduction in the money available to pay for schools and prisons and industrial recruitment and mental health and other basic services.
Gov. Haley did propose to spend the new gas tax revenue on roads: $3.5 billion over the next decade. But she also proposed to steal $8.5 billion from those core functions of government over that same period.
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The governor says she’s making roads a priority (although really she’s making tax cuts the priority), and it’s true that we can fix a big problem in government by making it a priority. But if we aren’t careful, we create other problems, as we saw most recently with the cuts to our child-protection program that Gov. Haley now wants to reverse .
Her plan makes sense only if we are spending too much on government. But her budget doesn’t demonstrate that she believes that. State revenue is expected to grow by $290 million next year, as a result of inflation and population growth; Gov. Haley proposes to use $108 million of that to increase school funding, $92 million on new child-protection caseworkers and other health and social services, $61 million on roads, $32 million on employee benefits and $13 million on new parole officers and other public safety programs.
So if her tax plan were already law, she’d have to cut $119 million from her budget. (That number would grow to $1.7 billion a year once the tax cut is fully phased in, in 2015.) That means either she’d have to scale back her education initiatives or those new DSS caseworkers or one of her other proposals, or else find something else in the budget to cut. And if there’s something in her budget that she believes we’d be just fine without, you have to wonder why she didn’t eliminate it, and send that money to roads.
The governor does get one thing absolutely right on roads: She insists that we dismantle our parochial road-building-and-repair system and replace it with one that actually looks at the needs of our state. That absolutely needs to be a component of any plan to spend more money on roads. As for how to get that money, it looks like legislators are going to have to figure that out for themselves, because all the governor has proposed is to cut spending to other programs, which she has not identified even for the relatively easy first year.