THERE ARE A lot of contenders for the title “most shortchanged by the state budget.”
State employees would say they top the list, with another year without across-the-board pay raises in both the House and Senate versions of the 2018-19 spending plan. We clearly still don’t have control of the Corrections Department, and although that might not be entirely a funding issue, it is at least partially a funding issue. Ditto protecting our environment. And providing job training that will help people move not just off of welfare but into jobs that will support their families. Our monstrously high highway fatality rate owes in some small part to an inadequately staffed Highway Patrol, and even with last year’s gas tax increase, a lot of people would argue that we’re still not spending enough to fix our roads. Then there’s deferred maintenance on state-owned buildings. And the list goes on. And on. And on.
But two groups stand out, because they are funded not only at less than they need but also less than state law requires: local governments and public schools. You could argue that colleges also qualify, but that’s debatable, although clearly they’re in strong contention for that most-shortchanged list.
This is not new. The Legislature has for years been ignoring state laws that mandate a minimum amount of funding for local governments and the public schools; rather than obey, lawmakers suspend the laws for a year in each budget.
What is new is that the Senate voted earlier this month to out itself, and the House, by making it clear to the public — or at least the portion of the public that ever looks at the state budget — just how badly it is underfunding our schools and local governments.
From last year: Guess what the new state budget doesn’t do — again
Before I explain, let’s recall where things stand.
A formula written into state law decades ago requires the Legislature to provide cities and counties 4.5 percent of the previous year’s state budget to pay for state services that state law requires them to provide. For the coming year, that’s $341 million. Both the House and the Senate versions of the budget provide $223 million, or $118 million less than required. That’s the amount provided in the current budget, even though the requirement increases each year. That is 65 percent of what state law requires, the lowest portion yet in a decade of steady reductions.
Another formula written into state law decades ago requires the Legislature to provide $3,018 next year per “weighted pupil unit,” which roughly means per public school student. The House-passed budget says it provides $2,245 per unit, but it uses a lower number of students than the Senate version, which says it provides $2,485. When you do the math, that comes up to a $576 million shortfall in the House budget and a $388 million shortfall in the Senate budget. Which means the House provides just 74 percent of what state law requires, and the Senate provides 82 percent.
You can argue, as some legislators do, that the formulas need to be updated. But none of them has mounted a serious and sustained effort to rewrite the formulas. And like the rest of us, lawmakers ought to obey the laws that are on the books — particularly since, unlike the rest of us, it is within their power to rewrite those laws.
There’s also a second education funding requirement that legislators routinely ignore, and there is no way to argue that there is any legitimate reason to ignore it.
This newer funding requirement says the state must spend at least the same proportion of its non-lottery money on public and higher education (56.71 percent) as it spent before the lottery started. The lottery was sold to the public as a way to get more money for education, so this was passed to prevent the Legislature from playing a shell game — substituting lottery money for tax money. But our Legislature has been suspending THAT law as well, and playing the shell game, just like all the other lottery states had done. As measured by this requirement, the Senate version of the budget shortchanges education by $351 million. (The older “per pupil” funding requirement still wouldn’t be met if the lottery law were obeyed, but it would be mostly met.)
Freshman Sen. Rex Rice was a House member when the lottery was passed, and he helped write that requirement. When he came back to the State House last year, he realized that it had been ignored since 2011. So during the Senate’s budget debate earlier this month, he offered and the Senate adopted a budget proviso that explains that if the law were followed “an additional $351,000,000 would need to be appropriated for education.”
Mr. Rice told his colleagues that he couldn’t find $351 million to add to the education budget but that he wanted to “make sure everybody understands” what the Legislature is doing. “Basically what it does is it spells out that by suspending that law, there’s $351 million being redirected away from education.” Sen. Chip Campsen described it as “a commentary on the budget.”
Mr. Rice also got the Senate to adopt a proviso to explain that if the local government law were not suspended, “an additional $118,591,723 would need to be appropriated for the Local Government Fund.”
I can’t say the votes were unanimous — they were unrecorded voice votes — but I didn’t hear any “nays,” and no one asked to be recorded as voting no. Of course, how could anyone object?
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.