There were years, not too long ago, when journalists journeyed on a cold January morning (there was even snow on the ground) to hear legislative leaders talk about special spending on school buses and other wants. The cold has stuck around, but these days, it’s nothing but the needs, and even some of those are getting the ax.
State budgets of the past two years have been subjected to cuts, but it’s not enough. When legislators return this week and begin writing the budget, they’ll still be grappling with more than $560 million in existing spending the state won’t be able to pay for.
“If we were at the federal level, we’d print money, we’d borrow money,” says Les Boles, the state’s Budget Office director. Instead, South Carolina has to balance the budget, and that means either a tax increase or further cuts to state programs.
“There are some hard choices ahead,” says Senate leader Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston). But, “It’s not going to be a menu of new taxes, it’s going to be a menu of what we can do without.”
In the last two years, the state has lost 24 percent of the revenue it collects (largely due to lagging income and sales taxes). But that’s with $700 million in federal stimulus money that has shored up state coffers — money that will run out at the end of the year.
And, while things appear to have hit rock bottom, Boles says the state’s economy isn’t expecting the jump in revenue that is typically seen when climbing out of a recession. Growth is expected to be flat over the next 18 months, with a one percent or two percent climb in subsequent years.
“We’re not seeing a spike,” he says of the economic forecast. “We’re seeing a flat line.”
If there is one silver lining in perpetual revenue shortfalls, it’s that you really don’t have much else to talk about other than how you’re going to fix it. Over the next five months, much of the attention will be on budget reforms making their way through both sides of the legislature.
Proposals to increase rainy-day funds and create a commission to streamline state spending priorities will lead the debate as longtime fixes. But saving more seems like a stretch in the grip of a recession.
“The time when we should have been saving the money is when we didn’t have deficits,” says Orangeburg Rep. Harry Ott, the House Democratic leader.
McConnell is also taking this dire opportunity to put a cap on spending in good times. He’s proposed a bill that would create a ceiling on the money the legislature could spend in the years when it’s rolling in, preserving a little bit more money for the lean years.
“We need to get away from the boom and bust budget situation,” says Cherokee legislator Harvey Peeler, the Republican leader in the Senate.
Rays of sunshine in the legislature are coming from only one direction: North Charleston. More than one legislator touts the city’s good economic news over the past few months, including the new Boeing plant, Port of Charleston expansion, and a $45 million wind turbine facility.
“Nothing happens in the economy until the cash register rings,” Peeler says. “What can we do? Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
House Speaker Bobby Harrell says attention has turned to the next big thing, whatever that might be.
“We’re out looking for business and bringing new business to the state,” he says.
By all expectations, this week will be the beginning of the end for the Sanford saga. The governor’s mysterious five-day trip last June to visit his mistress in Argentina, along with subsequent revelations about questionable travel spending, has had everyone’s attention for seven months.
The House is expected to take up a censure of the governor (read: slap on the wrist) on Wed. Jan. 13. After committee hearings this fall that aired much of the hurt feelings and accusations, the body could offer a vote within minutes and send it on to the Senate.
“The people of South Carolina want to move on,” says Harrell. “We need to take it up, debate it, and move on.”
But the future of the resolution from there seems murky at best. Sen. Jake Knotts, the Lexington Republican who first broke the story about Sanford’s disappearance, says he’s prepared to sideline the censure — a measure he considers worthless and “whitewashing.”
“The outcome was evident from the start,” he says. “It can go to committee and it can die in committee.”
The issue of censure may fall off the radar, but the impact of the affair will likely be prevalent throughout the legislative session.
Bills have already been introduced that would clearly lay out the line of succession when the governor is unavailable, as well as other legislation introduced that would provide an opportunity for voters to recall disgraced officials.
Another bill would mandate law enforcement protection for the governor and lieutenant governor, and legislators will likely review the personal use of state airplanes — both issues that arose in the weeks following Sanford’s return.
The whole ordeal has also led officials to consider the future of the lieutenant governor. Some want to put the position on the same ticket as the governor and others wonder whether it’s not a better idea to scrap the part-time job altogether.
“If we keep the lieutenant governor, let’s give him a job,” says Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens), suggesting economic development.
Legislators are also likely to take up Freedom of Information Act reforms following the Sanford scandal.
“The FOIA process is broken,” says Rep. James Smith, a Richland County Democrat.
He’s calling for a universal retention policy for records and a way to resolve disputes other than the courts, as well as reforms on how much the government can charge for the information and increased penalties for those who violate the act.
Moreso than the embarrassment of the last six months, legislators from Sanford’s own party are finding it difficult to hide their seething frustration at the way he’s conducted business in the Statehouse — whether it’s his sideshow attempts at attention, his complaints about his lack of authority, or his pervasive refusal to find consensus on any issue.
The governor introduced his budget proposal last week, but Sanford himself joked that his list of spending priorities is considered a “doorstop,” often ignored by the legislature. State Sen. Danny Verdin also put a nail in the coffin of one of Sanford’s most prominent initiatives: putting many of the statewide elected leaders under gubernatorial appointment.
Verdin says voters have had eight years to mull Sanford’s pitch.
“I have not seen any interest from constituents in losing ballot access to other offices,” he says.
As much of the legislature looks to get the state’s spending in order, members trying to win higher office are offering up a slew of buzzworthy proposals. Few seem poised to win approval, but they’ll play really well on the stump.
Rep. Tim Scott, a Charleston Republican running for lieutenant governor, has introduced several bills that would seek to minimize the impact of any federal healthcare reform, including a bill that would have South Carolina “opt out” of any new programs and one that proposes a constitutional amendment that preserves the “freedom of South Carolinians” by prohibiting mandatory healthcare coverage. Scott has also introduced a bill that would limit the lieutenant governor to two terms and another that would reinforce the state’s anti-union credentials.
Sen. Larry Grooms, a Berkeley County Republican running for governor, has introduced a Fair Tax bill and another that would call on the state’s Congressional delegation to only vote for a balanced federal budget — two things that will play very well with his supporters in the GOP primary. Another gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Nikki Haley, has also introduced a spending bill that would call for caps and a zero-based budgeting process, but similar bills by more powerful legislators will likely outshine the proposal from the Lexington Republican.
That’s the proposed speed limit for state highways under a bill authored by Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland).
That’s the number of new bills introduced recently in the Statehouse regarding texting or cell phone use while driving.