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Why You Can’t Read Half the State Budget
By: Dillon Jones
web posted March 18, 2013
GUEST OPINION – The South Carolina state
budget – which passed the House last week and now goes to the Senate –
is split into two major pieces: Part 1A and Part 1B. While both parts
are excruciatingly boring to read, the first part – 1A – is at least
understandable. It at least looks like a budget: Each agency has its
own chart of line items showing how much money is allocated to each
agency, program, function, etc. That’s why, when members of the news
media talk about “the budget,” they’re almost always talking about that
portion of the budget they can read – Part 1A.
Part 1B is a very different thing. At 197 pages and 112,836 words long
– roughly the length of a full-sized book – it’s virtually impossible
to read for anyone who hasn’t been shown how to read it.
The problem, of course, is that 99.99 percent of taxpayers haven’t been
shown how to read Part 1B of the South Carolina state budget. And no
level of “transparency” will change that. It doesn’t matter much
whether Part 1B is put online as soon as lawmakers pass it – if
taxpayers can’t read it, it might as well be a secret.
So, what exactly is Part 1B? It’s is a list of budget “provisos” that
in some cases appropriates funds and in others stipulate how agencies
and programs may spend funds. Hundreds of millions of dollars are
allocated in 1B, the great majority of which are dedicated to such
highly questionable items as tourism marketing, “studies” for the
feasibility of new roads, and regional “economic development”
nonprofits. Here are just a few:
Proviso 33.34 is the GOP “alternative” to plan to Obamacare – a massive
giveaway to hospitals for reasons as yet unexplained.
Proviso 50.22 authorizes the Department of Commerce to use $300,000 for
an entity called the Council on Competitiveness to “provide funds for
existing business economic development activities.” Inexplicably,
another proviso – 118.17 – authorizes $300,000 for the same program.
Proviso 117.7 seems like a good idea until you actually read it. This
would prohibit state agencies and the like from increasing fees unless
it’s done by statute (i.e. by the General Assembly). Unfortunately, the
proviso carves out a number of exceptions to the prohibition – most
notably higher education institutions and government healthcare
facilities. No doubt more exceptions will be added, making the proviso
completely useless. If anything, the prohibition should apply
especially to state universities, since these are notorious for simply
raising tuition as a way of avoiding tough budget decisions. In any
case, fines and fees are a form of tax, and state agencies shouldn’t
have the right to raise taxes absent authorization of the General
Assembly. Or, to say the same thing another way, the General Assembly
shouldn’t be allowed to avoid responsibility for tax increases.
Proviso 117.34 allows the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank or
Railroad Commission to issue grants (funded by taxpayers) to develop
“innovative transportation technology.”
Proviso 118.17 is full of goodies for state agencies and programs. Just
three examples: $220,000 for a university center in Greenville; nearly
$8 million to the Department of Commerce for the Deal Closing Fund
(handouts for corporations that promise to invest and/or create jobs);
and $1.6 million for the Lexington County Maintenance Complex.
Much of this money doesn’t even show up in the budget documents most
people look at in Part 1A and think of as “the budget.” Furthermore,
these provisos aren’t scrutinized and debated the way line items in
Part 1A are. And since provisos in Part 1B are only in effect for one
year, lawmakers generally carry them over from year to year – making
them in effect perpetual laws and/or spending items that exist wholly
outside the public view.
So, what’s the solution? Simple: Eliminate Part 1B and give all money
that would be appropriated by it back to taxpayers. Some may argue that
not all funding items in Part 1B are illegitimate. Maybe. But if that’s
true, lawmakers ought to budget for those items in the General Fund,
where they can be deciphered and honestly debated. Part 1B has long
since become a gigantic hiding place for potentially controversial
spending items. That is not a legitimate function of a state budget.
But since there is little to no chance that South Carolina lawmakers
would actually return the money tied up in Part 1B to taxpayers, the
least they could do is put its appropriations where they belong – in
Part 1A – so that at least the public and media can see what they are.
Editor's note: Dillon
Jones is a policy analyst at the South Carolina Policy Council
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