Originally created 06/02/04

Budget process needs a statewide perspective



Over the last few days, there has been a well-chronicled fuss over budget vetoes. But the basic question all of us should ask is, why? At the end of the day, for me it has all been about two principles:

1. In a state that constitutionally requires a balanced budget and therefore doesn't allow deficit spending should we immediately pay off an illegal deficit that by law shouldn't exist when we have the means to do so or put other spending ahead of it? And if we don't, what sort of precedent do we set for a legislative body 50 years from now in adhering to the balanced budget requirement our founding fathers put in place?

2. When is enough enough in spending money we don't have? This so-called "Maybank Money" is $90 million we hope will materialize, but because there are no guarantees, we felt we needed to build in some cushion space if it was going to be paying for core functions of government.

We certainly had other much larger differences. For example, our budget proposed growth in government of 1 percent, while this one proposed growing government by 6.6 percent. Our budget incorporated substantial savings from restructuring; this one proposed very little restructuring and spends $315 million more than is projected to come in on a recurring basis which creates an immediate budget hole next year.

But politics is about compromise, so in our vetoes we elected to limit our focus to the two things we thought mattered most. We offered vetoes covering 1 percent of the entire budget that would have extinguished the remaining unconstitutional $16 million deficit - and left a $20 million cushion in the $90 million of "Maybank Money" to ensure that agencies such as DSS actually receive the funds promised. We offered 106 vetoes in essence, 106 chances to recognize at least a dollar of waste in a $5.3 billion budget. The House didn't find a single dollar. So, the following day, I carried a couple of pigs upstairs as a light-hearted way of saying, "Wait a minute, there is plenty of money for pork projects for individual members districts, but no way to carve out any savings to pay off the deficit?"

Trying to change anything in the political process means you're going to lose some fights, and we lost on both of these principles. It's time to move on, but the fuss surrounding them raised, for many, a bigger question the belief that these overturned vetoes had less to do with the vetoes themselves than with making a statement about who is in charge of the budget process in South Carolina. Clearly, we recognize that to be the General Assembly, but whether the executive branch has a hand in the process is important for all of us to think about, because the ultimate measure of any government is what it spends.

In our state, the governor's office historically has not had much involvement in the budget. That's been the Legislature's "sandbox." While the legislative body is for the most part composed of very competent people, each member is elected to represent one district one part of our state. For more than 200 years, governors didn't even produce an executive budget until Carroll Campbell began the process a little more than 10 years ago, yet the governor's office brings with it a unique statewide perspective that Gov. Campbell believed was key to the budget process. Regardless of how much a representative loves this state, if elected to represent one district and given the choice between something in that district or something better for the state but 100 miles away guess which one many believe they are required to pick?

It is precisely for this reason that we need the executive branch to nudge and challenge the General Assembly to go just a bit further when dealing with principles as significant as the ones we laid out in our budget vetoes. That's not a crisis and that's not an offense. That's something we should celebrate, and two great things came out of this whole fuss.

One, there were some heroes in both the House and Senate who stood up for these simple ideas and from little beginnings big things can grow that ultimately begin to change the way things are done in Columbia. If you get the chance, I'd ask you to thank people such as Greg Ryberg, Greg Gregory, Harry Stille, Glenn McConnell, Herb Kirsh, or Ben Hagood. Second, sand is always going to fly when you get in someone else's sandbox. For a while it may get messy, but in the end you can build a far better sand castle with two hands rather than one.

So it also goes, I think, with South Carolina's budgeting practices. Time will tell. In the meantime I plan to keep on digging.

(Editor's note: The writer is governor of South Carolina.)