A righteous cynic might say the state of South Carolina is about to turn on a spigot of spending that would make a drunken sailor proud.
But perhaps the state is finally starting to catch up on investments that it didn’t make for years in education, employee salaries and neglected infrastructure.
Members of the House and Senate will return to Columbia next week to consider an $11 billion budget compromise hammered out this week by legislative negotiators.
“This is a great budget that focuses on teachers and education, workforce training, infrastructure and law enforcement,” House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said Thursday. “There’s a real concentration on the core functions of government and there are tremendous investments in these areas.”
Lawmakers this year have about $2 billion more than they normally have to spend. First, they have a big pot of unspent money from reserves that accumulated because they didn’t pass a regular budget last year due to the pandemic. Second, the pandemic didn’t cause tax collections to be off as much as first feared. Third, there’s more money coming in thanks to federal largesse.
The state’s new budget calls for millions of spending dollars for state employees — a $1,000 pay raise for each teacher plus a 2.5% pay hike for all employees. There’s $114 million for instructional materials at schools and more millions for public charter schools as well as money to keep public colleges from increasing tuition.
Then there’s infrastructure spending. The budget steers about $500 million for colleges and technical schools, including $176 million from 2020-21 reserves, for long-deferred maintenance and renovations, such as stopping water intrusion at one college or adding a lab at another.
More tax dollars at work are at the state Department of Transportation, which has $1.9 billion in revenue from a blend of federal and state sources, including an extra $68 million from two additional cents of gas taxes at the pump. This will be the fifth of six years of two-cent gas tax increases, incremental additions to state coffers that will generate about $287 million this year in revenues for better roads.
Before the gas tax increases started, the state put in about $300 million a year to pave roads. Now it’s projected to spend $642 million this year. Since 2017, it’s spent $2 billion on paving projects, Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said.
On top of increases in the budget and through gas taxes, there’s more infrastructure spending coordinated by other agencies, such as $200 million for the S.C. State Ports Authority and money at the State Fiscal Accountability Authority for land and buildings and Rural Infrastructure Authority for better rural schools.
Even more spending is coming. In the fall, lawmakers will meet again to consider how to use more than $500 million in settlement funds received from the federal government for a decades-long fracas over the Savannah River Site. Then there will be debate on what to do with the state’s $2 billion share of recovery funds from a recent federal stimulus package.
With all of this money floating around, you can see why some might bring up drunken sailors.
What’s missing in all of this spending, particularly the infrastructure spending, is clear accountability. It’s almost impossible to get a clear picture of exactly what the state is doing to build for South Carolina’s future. Perhaps the state should build a holistic transparency tool to publish all of the data in one place so that it’s easy to see what’s happening — and then gauge later whether it is working.
And you know a great place for that? The internet. With more big spending ahead, lawmakers should insist on more transparency so taxpayers can figure out everything that’s going on.
Andy Brack is publisher of the Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org.