You know it is early summer in the Palmetto State when our politicians start bragging about how conservative they've been with your tax dollars. You know the drill: The South Carolina General Assembly passes a budget larger than the previous year's and overrides gubernatorial vetoes, and then Republican legislative leaders spin their spending as "conservative" and "fiscally responsible."
This year's campaign includes a recent op-ed by House Speaker Bobby Harrell titled "Our conservative budget," in which he claims the legislature "reduced the size of state government by cutting both taxes and spending." That is simply not true.
Cold hard facts have been provided by the South Carolina Policy Council, and they aren't pretty. In 2002, state spending was $14.6 billion; this year, it is $21.9 billion. That means in the past nine years - with Republicans in control of both legislative chambers and the governor's office - state spending increased by 50 percent.
Harrell says that this spending growth was necessitated by increases in population and inflation, but that composite figure for our state during this time span was only 36 percent. State spending increased to a much greater degree, and there's nothing conservative about that.
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Harrell argues that federal dollars used to fund state programs shouldn't count in assessing the size of state government since that is "spent by Washington politicians in Congress." Legislative leaders want the public to believe state officials have no control over whether federal dollars are received or spent.
As a former chief-of-staff in the governor's office and current state senator, however, I know that only state officials have the ability to request and authorize the spending of federal dollars, and that new state programs are routinely created to "draw down" federal money even though multiple "strings" are attached. And I know that the more money the legislature takes from the feds, the less free we are as a state.
Consider the health care "stimulus" money. The feds' price for that was control over Medicaid, our state-run health care program for lower-income South Carolinians. Several of us in the Senate argued against this surrender of state sovereignty, but we were outvoted. So the state took the money, and we are now unable to control costs by limiting participation in Medicaid to those who truly need it.
In the past two years alone state spending for Medicaid has increased from $606.3 million to $963.1 million. There is nothing conservative about increasing state entitlement spending in two years by 59 percent or allowing the federal government to control who participates in our state health care program.
Harrell contends the legislature has "worked very hard to make sure South Carolina has a competitive and fair business climate." Well, more so for some than for others. In the past 13 years, the special state incentives doled out to those with the money to lobby for them has skyrocketed from $34 million annually to over $1 billion, and thanks to over 100 special loopholes we now exempt more in sales taxes than we collect.
All of this state corporate welfare benefiting the few, of course, results in higher taxes for everyone else. And there is nothing conservative about state government picking winners and losers in the private marketplace.
Harrell says debt repayment is a conservative feature of the state budget, but barely a dent is made toward outstanding liabilities. The state owes $22.8 billion to the state retirement system and for other post-employment benefits, and they are ignored in the budget. Moody's recently listed South Carolina as one of five states in danger of a credit downgrade, underscoring that there is nothing conservative about ignoring existing debts.
Regardless of what legislative leaders tell you, precious little about this year's budget is conservative, and with all the work to be done we certainly shouldn't be taking a victory lap. The good news is that taxpayers are furious with the level of government spending and aren't buying the spin.
Some of us in the legislature want our state to become truly conservative; we know that shifting power from government to individuals will increase our economic productivity and quality of life. Right now, however, we are simply outnumbered. But every state legislator is up for reelection next year; give us a hand, and we'll deliver real conservative change.
The writer is a Republican state senator from Beaufort County.