Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The 2000s: South Carolina’s lost decade

By Andy Brack

Looking back over the last decade in South Carolina, there’s not a lot to be proud of. As it did in previous decades, South Carolina struggled with being at or below average in many areas.

Sure, there were some accomplishments. Compared to 2000, the state now has a lottery that pumps hundreds of millions into higher education. But that helped to fuel a move by the state to lower the amount of tax dollars it sent to higher education, which led to huge tuition hikes. In 2000, the average in-state tuition for a four-year public college was $3,695. This year, it’s $8,957, according to state statistics.

Another positive accomplishment was the creation and continued funding of public kindergarten for 4-year-olds. Studies show that the sooner kids start learning, the better they’ll be in the future.

Also, the state helped to preserve more land in recent years than ever before. Gov. Mark Sanford has said one of his biggest accomplishments as governor was to boost land conservation.

So yes, some things are better. But the 2000s for South Carolina have tended to be “The Big Zero,” the description New York Times columnist Paul Krugman gave to the decade. Maybe there are some better names for what happened to South Carolina in the last 10 years. Take your pick:

The Leaderless Decade. Remember “Leadership,” the sole description that accompanied Sanford’s election bumper stickers? Well, there’s not been a lot of leadership across the state over the last few years. Sanford, outed this year as a philanderer, bickered constantly with the Legislature. Lawmakers argued back and greased squeaky wheels. Meanwhile, unemployment grew to record levels. People grew more cynical about government.

The Lost Revenue Decade. State government currently is operating on about the same amount of revenue as it did 10 years ago. There are fewer state employees now doing the same jobs – or even more – than in 2000. A mid-decade economic boom sent revenues soaring. But things that go up sometimes crash hard as they have the last couple of years. The General Assembly passed property tax reform that, on balance, helped the rich pay less in overall taxes, which led to most people paying a little more. Meanwhile, state sales tax exemptions – special tax breaks for the special interests – grew dramatically so that the state loses $2.5 billion in revenue annually.

The Minimally Adequate Decade. Thanks to a lower-court ruling, South Carolina’s public education system now is classified as requiring a “minimally adequate” education for K-12 students. In other words, the state has institutionalized being average. Great. Something else to be proud of. At least kids are starting kindergarten earlier … so they can be in a minimally-adequate system longer.

The Lost Opportunity Decade. State lawmakers have bypassed multiple opportunities to restructure state government. They’ve thwarted efforts to raise the cigarette tax to generate more revenues for increasing health care costs. They’ve all but ignored a state corrections system that is teeming with inmates who live in conditions said to be a “powder keg” of potential problems. They’ve got hundreds of millions of road maintenance problems.

The Ostrich Decade. South Carolina public officials seem to have a penchant for sticking their heads in the sand. One year, there’s an attempt to refuse federal stimulus money. Another time finds missed warnings about a broken unemployment system. Elected officials seem so scared of losing their elected positions that they generally refuse to see the big picture – that if state government is going to help to make things better for everyone, they’ve got to invest in South Carolina. That means raising revenues. If we won’t invest in ourselves and our future, who will?

So maybe the best way to sum up the 2000s is that it has mostly been a lost decade. About the best thing to come out of the state may be comedian Stephen Colbert, who like his peer Jon Stewart, periodically pokes fun at … the crazy stuff that happens here.

Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com

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