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We all know that the New Year is a time for new beginnings – an opportunity for fresh starts. Typically, we vow to exercise more, eat less, spend fewer hours at the office, acquire new skills or set some other lofty goal.
For those of us in positions of state leadership, perhaps the New Year is also a good time to evaluate the way we do things in Columbia.
The New Year brings huge challenges – South Carolina’s current budget crisis is chief among them. And, of course, we need to deal with our existing problems. Improving our schools, growing our economy, reducing the tax burden, and finding ways to make health care more affordable will continue to be top priorities. We’ve been at the bottom in too many areas for too long.
But if we are to truly move our state forward, toward a brighter future, we have to make some long overdue changes – changes in the structure of state government, in the way we spend public money, and in our philosophy about public service. We’ve got to modernize our 19th Century system of government, bring greater transparency to our policy-making process and show greater spending discipline.
On the issue of transparency, I’ve been privileged to work alongside a group of reform-minded legislators in the hopes of ushering in a new era of openness and accountability. My efforts have focused on finding new ways to make information on state government’s spending available on the Web, and in the coming months, I’ll be working with local governments – cities, counties and school districts – to help them do the same. In the legislature, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is working to pull back the curtains of government so that more decisions are made in full view of the citizenry. Let’s hope their efforts meet with success. An open, accountable government is essential for building public trust.
On the issue of restructuring, Gov. Mark Sanford has worked over the past several years to bring needed reforms that would streamline spending, cut back on waste and strengthen accountability. The governor’s ideas deserve honest consideration and debate. Eliminating the five-member Budget and Control Board – the central agency that oversees much of state government’s finances – and replacing it with an agency under the control of the governor would be a good first step toward improving accountability.
Lessons from the immediate past teach us that state government must reform the way it spends. During prosperous economic times, there’s been the tendency to spend every bit of revenue that comes in.
As a fiscal conservative, I’ve always cautioned against this practice. My father taught me to be more careful than that.
When the economy turns downward (as it does from time to time), state government takes in less revenue and can’t support itself at the expanded size it grows during better economic times.
As a result, since state government’s current fiscal year started in July we’ve had to make three mid-year budget cuts. That’s no way to run any organization.
We simply must show greater restraint so that the growth of government never again so seriously outpaces our ability to pay for it.
These aren’t radical changes. Many will recognize them as simple common sense.
But in my opinion, they’re badly needed if we’re to truly move our state forward.
Let’s resolve to make 2009 the year we change South Carolina.