Hey South Carolina, What's the Plan?
By Phil Noble
Over the last week or so, the same basic story has appeared in all the major newspapers around the state: economists have projected that we as a state (i.e. the legislature) will have an additional $446 million to spend over the next fiscal year.
It’s good news that we will have this additional money to address some of the serious needs of our state. It’s bad news that all the state agencies have showed up asking for $1.9 billion in new money they say they need to address what they say are the “serious needs of the state.”
We have $446 million – they want $1.9 billion
So, let’s look first at the familiar problem of too little money to do all the things the agencies want to do, and then second, let’s look at the more fundamental issue of how we as a state decide how to spend our money.
The budget news stories are full of long lists of what all the agencies say they need. Not surprising, a lot of them say that their need is “the number one priority of our state.” Fixing our roads is our top priority; fixing our retirement system and its huge deficit is our top priority; fixing our K-12 school system is our top priority… you get the picture.
And, all of these folks are right – all of these things are our top priority. For years, we have had these same problems but every year the legislature has kicked the can down the road and not fixed what should have been fixed long ago. So, all of those cans that they have been kicking down the road have now fallen into a pothole that’s so big and deep that even the legislature can’t ignore things any longer.
The specifics of this year’s budget request prove my point. The higher education institutions of the state alone have requested $1.1 billion in new money – that’s 72% of all the requests that have been made. Notice that this 72% does not include roads, pension or K-12 education.
So, what’s going to happen? The answer is politics – plain and simple, raw and ugly. The politics of who gets what.
It will be the politics of this special interest battling this other special interest trying to get what they want. It will be a pitched battle between College of Charleston alumni and friends who want $130 million for renovations of some buildings and a new technology center vs Medical University alumni and friends who want $108 to renovate some building and a new College of Pharmacy.
Take this one example and multiply it many times over – with law enforcement vs social services or flood control and dam repair vs. dredging for the ports and beach nourishment in Myrtle Beach or it’s USC alumni vs Clemson alumni … and on and on it goes.
And in one way or the other, it’s one lobbyist vs another lobbyist – and most often their weapons of choice will be campaign contributions, free breakfast, lunch and dinners followed by evenings with scotch and bourbon and who know what all after that.
A lobbyist once explained it to me this way: first shift lobbying is what goes on during the day time in the capitol building and legislator offices – it’s mostly middle age white guys in suits (who are the paid lobbyists). Second shift lobbying begins when the legislature adjourns and there is lots of expensive food, cocktails and more women and lobbyist principals (people who pay the lobbyists) are added in the mix. Third shift lobbying is virtually all women, mostly young and attractive and… well you get the picture.
Let me suggest a better way.
Back in 1995, I was invited to speak about the Internet and new technology to a big international conference in Dublin, Ireland. Setting aside my love of all things Irish, including my family roots, I was excited to go to Ireland as they were in the early days of a tech driven boom and I wanted to learn some lessons that might be applicable to South Carolina. We are both about the same size in land mass and population, with low wage / low skill economies and we have a number of similar problems.
During the course of the conference, the leaders of all three major political parties came and spoke to us and what they said was amazing – they all said the same thing, literally.
In succession, each leader stood up and said “Here are the four goals for Ireland and how we are going to build a better future for our children: 1) improve basic education and promote technology skills, 2) change laws and regulations to promote entrepreneurial business, 3) reform the tax structure and incentives so that successful creative people and enterprises don’t leave the country for tax reasons, 4) promote an image to the world that Ireland is ideal for the tech industry and related foreign investment.”
Each of the party leaders recited each of the same four points. They had differing opinions of the best way to reach these goals and they put the goals in different priority order – but they each recited the same four strategic goals.
In short, they had a strategic plan for the country. The had developed it together, everyone knew what it was, and they all agreed to make legislative and political decisions based on their strategic plan.
And, what is our strategic plan for South Carolina? Best I know, there isn’t one.
I googled ‘South Carolina strategic plan’ and got nothing. There were lots of strategic plans for this state department and that department, for this economic group and that group, for this city and that city – but no strategic plan for the state of South Carolina as a whole.
All of this leads me to my favorite passage in Alice in Wonderland: Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice: “I don’t much care where –” Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
Next month the state legislature is going to meet for the year to decide how all this new money is spent, which road will get built, which college dorm will get renovated – and such.
I would suggest they first consider a more basic question: “Which way I ought to go from here?”
Hey South Carolina, what’s the plan?