BRACK: State needs to break grip of death spiral on governing

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher |  Over the last 14 years, two South Carolina governors pounded a philosophy on the stump and at the Statehouse that there was little government could do to be good or worthwhile.

This drumbeat against government, a child of Washington think tanks from the 1990s, seeped into South Carolina under Gov. Mark Sanford, who was obsessed against government borrowing to finance long-term needs.  Then it found an erstwhile acolyte in his successor, Gov. Nikki Haley, now headed to the national stage.  Using the bully pulpit of the governor’s office, they railed against big government, preached a gospel against taxes and proselytized for treating government like a business.

No less culpable in the drumbeat against government was the General Assembly, once a place for the possible.  Now, it’s a home for far too many leaders who have bought into this negative philosophy that government needs to be so small it should fit into a bathtub.  They’ve focused on short-term political gains over long-term solutions.

It’s been, as one longtime insider has observed, a death-spiral for government, a self-fulfilling prophesy built of cynicism, the zeal for power and a selfish focus on the individual, not the common good.

“What’s changed is the ascendancy of the anti-government group – that nothing government can do is good.  It has created this death spiral where you starve essential agencies, where their services get worse and then they [the leaders] argue about how bad government is.”

South Carolina’s state government of today is a shell of its former self, a place where too many loyal employees are just getting by.   Year after year, state leaders pushed for more and more tax cuts, which caused service reductions and created an ongoing need to figure out creative ways out of dark corners, such as how to fill open jobs at prisons.  See-saw funding at the state Highway Patrol create a cycle of trooper cuts, followed a couple of years later by funding to replace those lost with new recruits.  This isn’t a way to build stability.

This chart provides a comparison of General Fund (state) tax dollars for various agencies from the last budget before Mark Sanford became governor and now. It illustrates how health funding, driven by increasing costs, more than doubled and education funding went up a third, even though state lawmakers often have not met per pupil cost levels required by law. With these two agencies taking up more than half of state government General Fund spending, other agencies often have been caught in the crossfire.

Sure, there was a huge recession at the end of Sanford’s terms and as Haley got started.  Sure that caused budget cuts.  But because of the insipid nature of the state’s recent negative governing philosophy, state government hasn’t bounced back.  Three examples:

Employees.  Over the last 20 years,  the number of full-time state employees dropped by a quarter – from 42,000 employees in 1995 to about 32,000  in 2015, as the number of state residents grew by more than a million.  Bottom line:  More people live here, but fewer state employees provide services.

Tax cuts.  Since 1995 – and particularly since the Sanford-Haley years — the state legislature has cut taxes so much that it removed $31.6 billion in revenue.  Had that money been invested – or even half of it – the state might not be facing crumbling roads, challenged schools and agencies such as the Department of Social Services where fiscal neglect hurt the children who were supposed to be protected.

Higher education.  Billions of dollars have been steered away from colleges and universities as state support for higher education dropped from double digits annually into single digits.  In a continuing environment of austerity, colleges had to raise tuition so much that it’s now the highest in the Southeast.  For middle class families with students who don’t qualify for lottery scholarships, the traditional route to college is much tougher.

In South Carolina, we’ve reaped what we’ve sown in government. Twenty years ago, anti-government politicians were in the minority in a state led by a blend of traditional country club Republicans, Republicans who had been Democrats and Democrats.  They had a belief in government being part of the solution.

These days, far too many in Columbia buy into the notion that government is the problem.  Unfortunately, they’ve been the problem, so smitten by a cynical philosophy that they didn’t’ even see what was coming.

Let’s hope as a new administration in Columbia takes over that state leaders will make hard decisions and consider the value of government in a democratic society.  Let’s hope they work together, have long-term plans and govern based on the big picture.  Otherwise, we’ll continue running around like chickens with our heads cut off.

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3 Comments

  1. Dave Brown says:

    As regards your recently editorial regarding the “death spiral of governing” in South Carolina, you’ve nailed the cause exactly. What sets apart the recent administration’s and legislator’s approach to governing from that of more progressive governing is that the latter believes that government can be the agent for improving the quality of our lives while the former believes that government always has and always will be an impediment to improving the quality of our lives. It is instructive that we understand that difference. Furthermore, that difference explains in large measure why both our roads and our education system are in a state of considerable disrepair.

  2. Gillian Mark says:

    I am so relieved you wrote this; it is SUCH a vital issue and this mentality in the State House is holding back everyone. Good government should make society and individuals thrive and prosper! Let’s hope we can get some strong progressives in positions of power to make the changes that will help everyone in society, regardless of individual differences. We are stronger together and this should be the number one priority. Everything else should fall in place if we do this!

  3. Harriet Smartt says:

    Thank you Andy! Spot on and hopeful the players in Columbia take note!
    A new set of activists will be watching!