Simple, Easy, and Wrong Answers for S.C.
“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” H. L. Mencken
The South Carolina Legislature seems to live by this. We have some very big and complex problems in this state and our legislators are masters at coming up with clear, simple and wrong answers. Three stories in the news last week are a perfect illustration of this.
Many would argue that the two most basic core functions of our state government are to 1) educate our children and 2) keep us safe … and dealing with the related issue of how do we pay for these things.
First the problems and then the (wrong) answers.
Education. Readers of this space are probably tired of reading this line – but it is still true and I’ll keep writing it until it’s not: if we don’t fix education in this state, nothing else really matters.
Keep two facts in mind. 1) A recent study by the US News and World Report rated our state’s education system (K-12 and higher ed) as 50th in the country. 2) After a 21-year legal battle (yes 21 years), the state Supreme Court ruled that the state does not provide a ‘minimally adequate’ education for about a third of the students in the state, i.e. the Corridor of Shame schools. The courts have ordered the legislature to come up with a plan to do something about this educational travesty.
Against this background, the state passed legislation this session to provide an additional $140 million for K-12 education. Let’s break this down – $29 million for new school buses, $60 million to increase the per pupil funding to $2,425 and $55 million for school building repairs in low income districts.
Spending $140 million more on education sounds great, right? The legislators will now brag to the folks back home that they have done something about education.
Yeah, right – they spent $140 million to improve education across South Carolina. By comparison, Horry County just built five new schools and the average cost was $44 million each.
Safety. The concept of safety has many different components but clearly there are some core components of safety that are largely the responsibility of state government to provide – either directly or through state regulations.
A recent study by Wallet Hub analyzes 37 different safety indexes for each of the 50 states and this is where S.C. ranked in each of the categories – personal and residential safety – 49th, road safety – 47th, workplace safety – 21st, emergency preparedness – 36th and financial safety – 28th.
Overall, on the safety index South Carolina ranked 47th. North Carolina was 17th and Georgia was 32nd.
So, now let’s look at answers.
The hallmark of traditional politics and the mindless partisan divide are these simple, easy and wrong answers.
Traditional liberals reflexively say, “raise taxes, spend more money and let government do it.” Traditional conservatives reflexively say, “cut taxes, stimulate the economy, people make more money and then they will decide how they want to spend their money.”
They are both wrong. It’s not simply about spending more or less, it’s about spending smart. And clearly South Carolina is not spending smart – see education and safety above.
In South Carolina today, the cut taxes crowd are having their way – and it’s likely to get worse. Sen. Tommy Pope, Chairman of the Tax Policy Review Committee, says that cutting taxes is what he’s all about in the next session of the legislature. South Carolina already has one of the overall lowest tax rates in the country.
The problem with simply continually cutting taxes and not spending existing tax money effectively (see education and safety) is that at some point it does real and lasting damage to our state and its people.
Now, this is not just my theoretical ranting; let me offer a real life, real time example – Nebraska. In 2010, they elected Sam Brownback as governor and his pledge was a ‘march to zero income taxes.’ He promised that this would free up the economy, stimulate businesses and create jobs – 100,000 new jobs in four years, he promised in his 2014 re-election campaign.
The results have been disastrous. As one study found, “The state’s fiscal condition fell off a cliff: tax revenue plunged, creating huge budget shortfalls and leading ratings agencies to downgrade the state’s credit rating.” And the huge budget shortfalls led to massive and deep cuts in practically everything, especially in education, roads – i.e., see South Carolina’s problems above.
We need to get beyond all of this. We need to get beyond all the empty rhetoric of the predictable politics as usual of the right and left.
There are solutions that actually work. Two examples: 1) Zero Based Budgeting is a process where periodically departments and agencies must justify their entire budget and not just the new dollars they want to add each year; 2) Performance Audits are a well-established process where each department or agency is audited based on their performance and outcomes and not based on process and money spent. We should try these.
We have some big, complex and difficult problems in our state and we need to expect more of our so-called leaders than clear, simple and wrong answers.
We don’t deserve this. We can do better.