Sen. Tom Davis: State budget not as ‘conservative’ as advertised

You know it’s summer when politicians start bragging about how conservative they’ve been with your tax dollars. You know the drill: The 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 the July 17 op-ed by House Speaker Bobby Harrell, “Our conservative budget,” in which he claims that since Republicans took control of the House in 1994, the Legislature has “reduced the size of state government by cutting both taxes and spending.”

That’s not the way the numbers look to me. 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 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.

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 to place additional strings on Medicaid, the state-federal health-care program for lower-income South Carolinians. Several of us in the Senate argued against the additional strings, but we were outvoted. So the state took the money, and we are now further restricted in our ability 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 million to $963 million. There is nothing conservative about increasing state entitlement spending in two years by 59 percent or reducing our ability to control who participates in Medicaid.

Harrell contends that 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 more than $1 billion, and thanks to more than 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.

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.

Sen. Davis is a Beaufort attorney who served as Gov. Mark Sanford’s chief of staff.