MY LAST NERVE: With Three Days Left in Session, Lawmakers Find Dumb Things in State Budget

May 29, 2015

Inside Insight

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dumb things in state budget

700 GRAND FOR A QUAIL HATCHERY?
I MEAN, SURE, WHY NOT.

After six months of meaningless resolutions, behind-the-scenes negotiations with lobbyists, lengthy “debates” over bills that don’t matter to anyone, and early adjournments to attend receptions hosted by multibillion-dollar corporations, lawmakers have finally noticed that the state budget contains things that shouldn’t be in the state budget.

The entire session has been dominated by proposals to “pay for roads” with an increase in the gas tax – an idea premised on the idea that our roads are falling apart because the state doesn’t have enough money. Leave aside, if you can, the demonstrable baselessness of that premise – the premise that putting more money into a backward and unaccountable funding system will somehow improve results – and consider what might have been a reasonable response to the alleged need for an increase in road maintenance money.

Someone might have asked whether there are items in the state budget that don’t need to be there. In a $26 billion budget (reminder: each billion is 1,000 millions), it seems at least theoretically possible that some items could be deleted and the money sent to road maintenance. There are, after all, two ways to increase revenue for a program or agency: 1) raise taxes and/or fees, and 2) cut the unnecessary budget items.

All the talk’s been about the first. With only a tiny number of honorable exceptions, no one in the legislature has mentioned the second.

(Well, except when House members took enormous heat for trying to pass a bond bill full of boondoggles. In that instance, members cut a few budget items in order to make room for the boondoggles – thus proving, if nothing else, that budget cuts are possible.)

Yesterday, however, on the floor of the House, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-York) raised a fascinating question: Why is there a $700,000 appropriation for a “bird hatchery program”? Rep. Mike Pitts (R- Laurens) – Ways and Means Natural Resources subcommittee chairman – explained that the appropriation was for a “pilot program” to hatch quail, pheasants, and other commonly hunted birds. Rep. Pitts, explaining the program, insisted that lawmakers are “constitutionally” required to maintain the state’s natural resources. The logic, we’re left to assume, is that while this 700 grand appropriation to a hatchery might be debatable, the constitution just requires it. So their hands are tied. No choice about it.

But that led to another question. Rep. Walt McLeod (D-Newberry) noted that there had been several fish hatcheries in his district, but they were forced to close. So could he get similar appropriations for Newberry’s hatcheries? Pitts’ response was typical of the way things work among lawmakers: If you support the quail hatchery provision, he said (I’m relaying this from memory), we could talk about getting you those funds.

The hatchery item was just one appropriation in a 26-plus page amendment to the budget sponsored by the Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Brian White (R-Anderson).

The entire amendment was adopted by the House. No further serious debate.

So here we are: three days left in the legislative session, and the question of whether a budget appropriation is really necessary has finally come up. That’s great, and I’m glad such a topic was at least discussed by someone at some point during the 2015 legislative session. But it would be even better if lawmakers could have many more of these discussions, and far earlier in the session – ideally before the budget has already passed the House and the Senate. And of course it’d be great if the unnecessary items were actually struck from the budget.

Anyway: I hope, taxpayers, that you appreciate the quail hatchery you’ll now be subsidizing.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.