THE BUDGET passed by the House last month puts an end to teacher furloughs, and begins the long process of repairing the damage done in the classroom through recessionary-induced funding cuts. It shores up Medicaid funding, and begins the expensive task of implementing the federal health-care law, by finding and covering 70,000 poor children who already should have been covered under state law but aren’t. It begins to repair the shameful neglect of our mental-health program that predates the recession, and the dangerous neglect of our police. It demonstrates a bit of respect for the third, supposedly co-equal branch of government, by funding six new judgeships, to tackle the serious backlog in our family and criminal courts.
And it does all of this using stable, recurring revenue rather than building our government on the shaky foundation of surplus and other one-time money, as the Legislature has done, even in good times, for at least as long as I’ve been writing about the budget.
But when you compare where this budget would put us to where we ought to be — actually, to the very minimum place we ought to be — it still falls far short. It leaves us more than a decade behind on the amount of money state law says we’re supposed to be spending on basic classroom needs. It shortchanges cities and counties by $70 million on funds the state promised to help them pay for services that the state says they have to provide and can’t raise taxes to pay for. It does nothing to address the chronic underfunding of colleges that has always forced them to rely far too heavily on tuition. Our police forces are still too small to make a dent in some of the worst violent crime rates and most dangerous highways in the nation. Our health budgets still don’t allow for the preventive treatments needed to tackle some of the nation’s highest disease rates.
Despite all these shortcomings, the House passed the budget unanimously. House Minority Leader Harry Ott told fellow Democrats that in voting for the budget, “You should hold your heads high.”
What makes the budget so popular is the comparison to recent budgets and, even more, to the spending plan put forward by the governor.
• The House budget adds $153 million to the primary classroom funding program. A formula in state law says that spending for basic classroom costs per student is supposed to keep up with inflation, and that the figure should be $2,790 next year. So it doesn’t seem particularly impressive that the budget spends $2,012 — the amount we were spending in 2000. Until you realize that we’re spending just $1,880 per student this year, which is what we were spending in 1998. Or that Gov. Nikki Haley proposed cutting funding even more, to $1,776, which is less than we spent in 1997.
• State employees would get a 2 percent raise, with some law enforcement officials getting 5 percent raises. That’s less than they wanted (and whodoesn’t
want more?) but more than they’ve had in three years. They won’t see all the raise, because they’ll have to pay more for health insurance (like everybody in the private sector who has health insurance), and they’ll probably pay more toward their pensions (most in the private sector won’t have that problem, because they don’t get pensions). Still, it looks good to Democrats because Gov. Haley had proposed that state employees go a fourth year without any raise.
• The governor said she really wanted to give state employees a raise, but there just wasn’t any money to pay for it — at least not after she proposed spending $140 million to reduce personal income taxes and start a phase-out of corporate income taxes.
I’m not saying that a pay raise was the most important thing the Legislature could spend money on, but it makes more sense than yet another tax cut in a state that has some of the lowest taxes in the nation.
Of course, while the House did have the good sense to ignore the governor’s ill-conceived tax cut, it couldn’t bring itself to resist tax cuts altogether. What it did instead was allocate $77 million to offset most of the taxes that businesses are paying for all those years our state undercharged them for unemployment insurance, building up a $1 billion deficit that we’re having to pay back to the federal government.
I remain unconvinced that this is a great way to spend everybody’s tax dollars either, but it has the advantage over the governor’s proposal of being a one-time offset rather than a permanent tax cut. And it has the advantage over last year’s $146 million offset/bailout of being half as large.
• The budget sets aside $180 million for the state’s share of a $300 million project to deepen Charleston Harbor to accommodate super-sized ships that will become the norm starting in 2014. I’m not crazy about letting money sit in the bank for a decade (the federal government doesn’t expect to complete the project until 2024) when basic state services still are going unmet. But the House is gambling that fronting all the money will show international businesses that the state is serious about getting the harbor deepened, and perhaps even convince the Congress to kick the project into overdrive.
Part of the reason that money was available was that the House rejected the governor’s plan to set aside $75 million to encourage counties to take over the maintenance of some state roads. The governor is absolutely right that the state needs to rid itself of its excess roads — we have more state-owned roads than any other state — but frankly, county officials would be crazy to accept this deal, because the payments wouldn’t begin to match the money they’d have to spend to maintain the roads. And they can’t afford to take on any more duties since the Legislature won’t give them the money state law already requires to carry out state duties, and won’t let them raise taxes to pay for significant new duties they take on.
Most state legislators probably would decry moral relativism and its corrosive effect on our culture, and rightly so. But they’ve gotta love budgetary relativism, and a governor who makes their spending plan look so terribly responsible.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571.