ANOTHER RECORD year for the S.C. lottery. Hurrah! That’s great news for education, right?
I mean, the promise of the lottery was that state-sanctioned gambling would benefit education. Although the official lottery campaign mostly stuck to discrete education promises — school technology improvements and college scholarships — supporters did little to discourage voters from seeing the lottery as a promise of unlimited education spending at no cost. As the campaign promised: lottery = education.
Of course, it never turned out that way. Even the more modest promises that made it into state law haven’t been kept.
So although the lottery generated a record $435 million for education in the fiscal year that just ended, our public schools still can’t pay teachers well enough or give them good enough working conditions to keep them in the classroom, and colleges raise tuition routinely.
I hate to say I told you so. Again. So soon. But legislators keep refusing to keep the promises they made when they suckered us into supporting the lottery. And they refuse to acknowledge that they aren’t keeping the promises. So, it has to be said.
The lottery law requires the Legislature to keep spending at least the same portion of the state’s non-lottery revenue on public and higher education as it was spending before the lottery started.
Instead, nearly from the beginning, our Legislature has suspended that law, one year at a time so as not to call attention to its actions, so it could spend less on education. I explained this a year ago. In June, the Legislative Audit Council spelled it out in much greater detail.
Since the lottery began in 2002, the audit found, the Legislature has shortchanged education by a total of $2.1 billion. Since that audit was released, it’s only gotten worse.
This year, the Legislature spent $4.7 billion of non-lottery state revenue on public and higher education; that was 52.18 percent of total state spending. That’s either $410 million or $457 million less than state law requires, depending on how you calculate it. (The state had established the minimum at 56.71 percent, but the audit council said the benchmark should be 57.22 percent, which generates the higher deficit.)
Normally, it wouldn’t make good sense to mandate such rigid funding requirements: Needs change, priorities change, and lawmakers should be able to adjust to those changes. But this mandate was designed specifically to prevent our legislators from following the lottery playbook and doing what legislators in other lottery states have always done: Substitute lottery money for tax money.
If our Legislature decided at some point that it didn’t make sense to spend that much money on education, it was free to change the law. Which it has never done.
There was an effort in the Senate this year to at least acknowledge that this was happening. The Senate voted unanimously to add language to the state budget that spelled out exactly how much that budget was shortchanging schools (as well as cities and counties) by suspending mandatory state funding laws each year. The language wouldn’t stop the Legislature from ignoring the laws — it would just require that this be acknowledged. But when the budget came back from the House-Senate conference committee in late June, that language had disappeared. (For the record, this year’s state budget provides cities and counties with $118 million less than state law requires.)
It wouldn’t be fair to say the lottery has actually cost schools money. It’s possible that even if the Legislature hadn’t created the lottery, it would have slashed legally required funding for public education during the recession and never fully restored that funding. It’s possible too that even if the Legislature hadn’t created the lottery, it would have slashed its support of colleges and universities, and never even pretended to try to restore it.
But what is fair, and clear, is this: The lottery is most definitely not living up to its promises.
Now, to be clear, this does not mean the Legislature is spending less non-lottery money on education than it did before the lottery started. Education spending has grown from around $4.2 billion in 2001 to $4.7 billion this year. But it was supposed to grow as much as the budget grew, which means it should be around $5.2 billion.
The auditors made a point of saying that they weren’t trying to determine whether 57.22 percent is the right portion of the state budget to spend on education; they were simply determining whether the Legislature was obeying the law. As the audit explained: “Failure to meet this requirement prevents the fulfillment of the initial purpose of the South Carolina Education Lottery, which was to provide funds to ‘supplement, not supplant, existing resources for educational purposes and programs.’”
The lottery law doesn’t specify how much funding goes to public education vs. higher education; it just says the percentage of the state budget spent on education must not drop. Indeed, the audit found that the Legislature has actually increased the portion of the budget devoted to pre-K-12 education, from 42.4 percent the year before the lottery started to 44.7 percent in the year that ended June 30. But college funding has tanked, dropping from 14.8 percent of the budget before the lottery to 8.1 percent last year.
So the Legislature could have kept its promise by giving the public schools another $450 million or so this year and continuing to underfund higher education.
But of course it didn’t. It simply broke its promise. Again.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.