Ryberg/Davis: is doesn’t have to be this way

The State

By GREG RYBERG and TOM DAVIS, Guest Columnists

The Senate is debating a budget this week that cuts law enforcement, cuts public education, funds health care with one-time money and lays waste to almost every other agency in South Carolina.

The budget, which was approved last week by the Senate Finance Committee, fires hundreds if not thousands of teachers, releases some unknown number of prisoners and takes troopers off the road.

Purveyors of the carnage offer two excuses for the devastation —the economic downturn and the accompanying revenue decline, and the $350 million in federal stimulus money that Gov. Mark Sanford has certified but not yet requested.

The authors of this budget even wrote and passed a mythical “Part III” that uses the stimulus money, sort of like dangling the jail-house key in front of the condemned.

The terrible tragedy of the budget lies not, however, in the threatened layoff of teachers and troopers but in the simple and undeniable truth that the entire scenario is unnecessary.

The budget reflects both poor math and a complete absence of prioritization along with a shameful cynicism that pits one group of South Carolinians against another and attempts to pit them all against the governor.

It does not have to be this way. We do not have to accept the portents of doom from government. There is another option.

We developed over the past two weeks an alternative budget that accomplishes four things that we believe should be the priorities for government.

• First, our budget, coupled with recent flexibility legislation, sends $2.57 billion straight to schools to use any way they want. Schools have never received more money for classroom funding.

No teachers need lose their jobs. None.

• Second, our budget prioritizes public safety. The Department of Public Safety receives more than $3 million more than the current year, which allows it not only to operate at full capacity but also to add 75-100 new troopers.

We increase funding to the Department of Corrections by more than $50 million, which means that no prisons will close, no prisoners will be released and its years-old operating deficit is eliminated. (The Finance Committee budget continues the deficit spending just as in Washington).

All other public safety agencies receive increases in their funding over the current year to ensure that government fulfills its responsibility to protect the public.

• Third, our budget restores the 7 percent that was cut this year from all agencies with health-care functions. The Department of Health and Human Services, the primary provider of Medicaid services, receives an increase of more than $200 million in recurring money. This money will be there next year and the year after that and the year after that.

• Our budget lastly, but by no means least, sets aside $200 million for debt reduction. South Carolina will owe by the end of this year nearly $1 billion in loans to cover unemployment benefits payments; $200 million is a start on paying that back.

There is no magic behind our budget. We simply use existing revenue wisely and prioritize. We also capture common-sense savings that Gov. Sanford has promoted for years. For example, we save nearly $18 million by closing TERI positions.

We fund our priorities and repay debt without one dime of the $700 million Gov. Sanford wants to put toward debt relief. That money might be used for K-12 education enhancement, other government programs or, as we would prefer, additional debt repayment.

We presented this common-sense alternative to the Senate Finance Committee. It was fully detailed and certified as balanced by the State Budget Office. The committee chairman denied us even the chance to vote on it.

We will present this fiscally responsible alternative to the full Senate, where the rules require at least an opportunity to vote on it. We urge you to call your senator and ask him to consider the alternative to what even the chief proponent of the Finance Committee budget labeled “Armageddon.”

It does not have to be this way. You can replace despair and defeat with responsibility and fairness. Call today.