In his first State-of-the-State Address earlier this week, South Carolinians got their first significant taste of what it will be like under a Gov. Mark Sanford administration: a Spartan government brought on by the state's budget crisis. But a better government if the legislature will just "give me the tools."
Though there are still "i's" to be dotted and "t's" to be crossed, it's hard to argue with anything he said. Even Democrats had words of praise. Sanford stressed his restructuring plan, which he said would save money, and said there'd be no new spending programs, at least in the short term.
"I wish I could tell you the state of our economy was strong," Sanford said. "I wish I was assuming leadership of a state whose budget was sound, but everybody in this chamber knows that it is not. Our budget is a mess," and there is a "disconnect between the promises of government and our ability to pay for those promises."
Indeed, that's telling it like it is. Government has promised more than it can deliver - and now it's time to pay the piper. The state's budget is expected to fall as much as $1 billion short of meeting more than $5 billion in spending needs.
Sanford wisely has no plans to raise taxes to get the state out of its $5 billion hole. He said, however, he would consider a cigarette tax increase to rescue the state's crisis-laden Medicaid system, as many lawmakers seek to do, but only if the legislature also agrees to lower income taxes. That has always been his long-term goal anyway - to get rid of the state income tax by replacing it with sales taxes.
One of the best slim-down-the-government recommendations the new governor made is to fire lobbyists, at a saving of nearly $2 million a year, who lobby lawmakers to allocate more money to their agencies. This program is an outrage in the first place. Why should taxpayers pay propagandists to put the arm on legislators to spend more taxpayer money?
Some more sound ideas from Sanford's address:
Zero-based or performance-based budgeting for every agency. In other words, no ongoing program will be automatically refunded; each will have to prove its value to the public, just like it was starting from scratch.
End annualizations, i.e, the practice of spending capital or one-time revenues to fund ongoing programs. Much of the state's budget shortfall can be attributed to annualizations.
Have the state move to a biennial budget and extend renewal period on driver's licenses from 5 years to 10 years in order to relieve the Department of Motor Vehicle crisis.
The speech was light on education initiatives, but the governor did push for more charter schools and he asked lawmakers to help make schools smaller, to include conduct grades on report cards and to make teachers "sovereign" in their classrooms.
Overall, Sanford came across as a committed, compassionate conservative and if the legislature cooperates with his agenda and the economy improves, South Carolina should be a better place to live and work four years from now than it is today.