IMAGINE PARENTS who make their teenage child pay rent and buy her own clothes, food and school supplies. They give her an allowance, and she has a part-time job, but they won’t let her increase her hours, or get a better-paying job. Then one day they cut her allowance.
When she complains that she can’t keep paying rent, they tell her she was irresponsible to count on her allowance. And that she should be grateful because they’re thinking about maybe one day starting to give her a little more money. To pay for those things that parents are supposed to provide their children.
You could call these abusive parents. Or, you could call them S.C. legislators.
That, essentially, is how our Legislature treats cities and counties.
Like that teenager, city and county councils have to live with whatever rules their parents set. Unlike that teenager, they’re not children. They’re duly elected governments, every bit as accountable to the voters as legislators, with the job of providing the county and municipal services that their citizens want. Oh, and they also have to provide a bunch of services that the state demands. Services such as running election and voter registration offices and jails and providing security at the courthouse and indigent defense for people charged with state crimes.
Those are the services that their “allowance” — known as the local government fund — is supposed to pay for. Only the Legislature has refused to fund it fully since the start of the recession; some say it never has. The recession is over, and the Legislature is slowly increasing spending to programs it slashed when revenue was down. Only, the local government fund isn’t among those programs. State law says cities and counties get an amount equal to 4.5 percent of the previous year’s budget. That means they should be getting $288 million this year; instead, they’re getting $213 million. And there’s no plan to increase that next year.
Instead, the House has voted to abolish the 4.5 percent requirement and, starting in 2017, increase the local government fund at the same rate as the state budget. That is, H.3374 locks in the shortfall, and then promises to rebuild from there. Just as current law promises to give the locals 4.5 percent. But the locals still have to keep providing all those state services. And because state law strictly limits both the type of taxes that local governments can collect and how much they can increase those taxes, they can’t raise revenue to make up the difference.
Child abuse? How about voter abuse? It’s the voters who elected those councils who are being abused by the Legislature. Because each year, local governments are forced to spend more of their tax collections on services the Legislature makes them provide, and less of it on the services those voters want. The Senate needs to kill the House bill to make short-changing local governments the law. And it needs to find a way to start closing the huge and growing gap between what state law requires the Legislature to provide to cities and counties and what it actually provides.