2010-11 budget puts off some tough decisions

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By Mick Mulvaney

After a marathon 18-hour session that ended about 5 a.m. May 7, the S.C. Senate passed its version of the 2010-2011 budget.

I voted against it, for numerous reasons.

The budget actually has three different parts – the general fund, “other” state funds and federal funds that the state spends. The total for all three was just over $21 billion, which is up slightly from last year. Yes, you read that right – our state government actually grew during this recession. So, while business and families have less to spend, the state government actually has more. On the most basic principles, that bothered me tremendously.

But despite that growth, we saw cuts to, among other things, K-12 education and services for citizens with disabilities. True, the general fund shrank dramatically, from $7 billion two years ago to about $5 billion this year. But we also had almost $500 million in carry-over funds (funds that were appropriated, but not spent in previous years) that I thought could have provided a good source of funds for basic services.

And while the budget doesn’t raise any taxes (the cigarette tax was hiked in a separate bill), it has no shortage of additional fees. So, if you want to register your boat or buy a hunting license this year, you will pay more. The biggest fee increase is on car registrations, which will go up by $23 million this year. I don’t like fee increases in general, but I think they are especially inappropriate in the budget. When a fee is increased in the budget, it is usually five or six lines of text out of tens of thousands, so it often sails through without any debate whatsoever.

I offered some amendments to the budget this year, two of which were accepted. The first requires fee and fine increases in regulations to be better advertised to the public and the Legislature. (They are often buried within hundreds or thousands of lines of regulatory mumbo-jumbo). The second will require school districts to commit to furloughing administrators before they require teachers to give up their Step increases.

My other amendment – and the one that got the most attention – was a proposal to redirect funds from ETV for one year,  and use the money for additional highway patrolmen, teachers and services for the disabled. For me, the amendment was symbolic of what we need to be doing as a state –  making hard decisions between wants and needs. Only a dozen or so of my colleagues agreed, so that amendment failed.

Mine was not the only effort to direct more money to education and other basic services.  The Human Affairs Commission, the Conservation Bank and various special projects were also targeted for reduction. But those efforts all failed. The budget even spent $3 million on an I-95 Corridor Committee, which doesn’t even exist yet. In my mind, that money could have been better used in public safety, for example.

Many efforts at transparency were also turned back. The most important were efforts to require our universities to abide by the most basic disclosure rules for their expenditures.

Typifying the almost complete lack of transparency at our universities is the rule that allows them to use state airplanes without identifying who is flying on them. An effort to change that also failed.

By no means do I mean to imply that the Senate completely shirked its responsibilities in formulating a budget. The Senate did, in fact, make many tough decisions to whittle down some services so that, for example, the cuts to education would not have been even larger.   

One of the good things to come out of the budget is more local control over school district and local government operations and spending.  

And at least we have a budget. The federal government is now indicating that for the first time in its history, the House Budget Committee will not be telling us how it plans to spend our money next year. At least our state government has the fortitude to be honest with its citizens.  

However, in my mind, we could have done better. And, more importantly, perhaps, we are still failing to come to grips with what the future holds – even tougher economic times next year.

In that, it seems that our state government is mimicking our federal friends in continuing to grow government despite the recession, and just putting off the toughest decisions for another day.