MY LAST NERVE: The ‘Most Important Issue’ Might Have Nothing to Do with Money

June 26, 2015

Inside Insight

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WHY MUST IT ONLY BE ABOUT FUNDING?

The other day I was asked what I would say to folks who feel like the legislature didn’t “get anything done” this year. For instance, the fact that the legislature didn’t pass a “roads plan,” and that lawmakers didn’t address education funding in the wake up the 2014 Supreme Court ruling. My answer: Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something, because when lawmakers say they’re going to “do something,” all they really mean is that they’re going to dump more money into a problem and hope it goes away.

I recall a day early in the session in which several senators stood up in the chamber and declared what they believed to be “the most important issue” the legislature would address this year. Each member mentioned a different issue – one, I seem to remember, gave a “most important issue” talk twice, and mentioned a different issue each time – but it was pretty clear that all they meant by “dealing with” or “addressing” the issue is: increasing funding. It’s not just the Senate, either. The House has a large contingent of members whose answer to every problem, real or perceived, is to hike appropriations.

In recent years, lawmakers’ favorite “most important” issues have been roads and education. This year was no different.

Beginning in January, lawmakers and the governor were declaring their intention to do something on roads, but their definition of “doing something” was strictly limited to revenue and appropriations. It was always and only about money.

The question of how the state’s infrastructure system had been allowed to reach the sad state of disrepair in the first place – a poorly managed system largely controlled by a handful of legislators – was largely ignored. Since most lawmakers deliberately ignored how we got into the mess in the first place, it was difficult for them to slow down and think strategically about how to reform the system before they put a lot more money into it.

Another issue that didn’t get as much attention this year as many expected, but will almost certainly be a major issue next year, is education funding. After a landmark 2014 Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled that the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a “minimally adequate” education, many officials were quick to call for – you guessed it – more funding. Toward that end, several bills were filed this year to create a new statewide property tax solely to fund K-12 education. This, despite the clear statement by the court that the issue is not about funding. Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort), while calling for education reforms such as requiring more of our current education dollars to be spent in the classroom rather than on the administration, pointed to a survey of states by the National Association of States (NEA) indicating that South Carolina is at the national average with regard to public revenue expenditures per student.

Like most problems in our state, the accountability for educational decisions is diffused among numerous boards and commission across the state, mostly appointed by a few legislative leaders. The General Assembly continues to hesitate over any major reform to our education decision-making system because it would require some of the most powerful lawmakers to lose that power. However, diffusing the concentration of power the legislature has over these boards and commissions, and concentrating accountability for the outcomes and success of our system, is the only way the state will be able to transform our lackluster public education system.

With the second year of a two-year session around the corner, it’s important that our legislature take a step back to assess the actual problems in these and other public policy matters. Like infrastructure and education, several major policy debates will need to be had in the coming years – for example, how to continue to fund the ever-growing Medicaid program – and rather than cop out of the debate by throwing money at the problem and hoping it goes away, lawmakers will need to have thoughtful and well-informed debate on how to make these programs work best for the state.

In many cases, the first answer to the problem will be to remove control over these areas by a few legislative leaders only a few South Carolinians have even heard of. In any case, though, our elected officials must begin to consider the possibility that some problems can’t be fixed with money.

Jamie Murgia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.