Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cut cuts: Budget from perspective of state’s poor

By Andy Brack

FEB. 28, 2010 – Maybe state lawmakers should think about how their budget proposals would look to someone who doesn’t earn much.

The House Ways and Means Committee this week approved a $5.1 billion budget recommendation that will be the focus of legislative debate starting March 8.  Due to the tepid economy, state revenues aren’t robust.  In fact, the budget is $5.1 billion – more than a billion less than just a couple of years back.  What’s worse is that budget writers started out $98 million behind coming into this year because they have to make up an end-of-year shortfall from last year.

Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  For 2010-11, there’s about $200 million in lower revenues because people are buying less, among other things.  Additionally, budget writers have to find another $266 million to get balanced because they have to pay for required reserve funds, debt, homestead exemptions for seniors, employee health insurance increases, inflation and more.

The proposed solution by the House Ways and Means Committee is relatively simple:  Deep cuts, including $84 million to public K-12 education; $87 million to colleges; and $77 million for mental health and disability services.  Most state agencies will suffer 15 percent to 20 percent cuts – and this is after recent tough years, layoffs and more.

From a poor person’s perspective, state government is cutting programs and services that will hurt them disproportionately, compared to people with means.  Lawmakers are considering slicing school textbooks, kindergarten, health care for poor children and prescription drugs for poor seniors.

What’s not happening, in the larger scheme of things, are cuts that would impact people with means.  About the only thing that will happen to rich families is they may have to pay higher college tuition – but compared to the poor, they can afford it.

If state lawmakers want to be responsible in how they budget for everyone in South Carolina, they need to do more than just cut.  They should consider making life a little tougher for people with means, too.  They could get rid of the car sales tax cap so rich people who buy luxury cars pay more than $300 in sales tax.  They could add a high income tax bracket to make the income tax more progressive.  They could alter homestead exemptions for all seniors by providing for the tax break based on people’s income.  And they could get rid of some of the $2.5 billion in sales tax exemptions for special interests.

Cutting isn’t the only tactic in the legislature’s arsenal.  Lawmakers need to remember that in the coming weeks.

* * *

STATE LAWMAKERS are gung-ho about banning drivers from sending text messages while driving.  From a political standpoint, it’s a way to, ahem, send the message that it is unsafe to drive and text at the same time.

The problem, according to recent experience, is that such a ban doesn’t work in real life.  According to Newsweek, the ban isn’t working in Missouri.  State troopers have only written 11 tickets over five months for texting offenders.  Why?  Because “law enforcement often can’t tell the difference between illegal phone jockeying and someone rooting around for change.”

More than likely, our lawmakers will ban driving while texting.  But be leery of politicians making a big thing of it.   Because it will mostly be hot air.  Then again, what’s new?

* * *

WITH ELECTION DAY just eight months away, the most interesting news from Winthrop University’s recent poll was how most people weren’t familiar with the eight people who want to be governor.  Of the candidates in the race, 70 percent of those polled were not familiar with any of the four Democrats and two of the four Republicans.  Just over half weren’t familiar with Attorney General Henry McMaster.  And 30 percent didn’t know of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who also posted the highest unfavorable ratings at 27 percent.

Bottom line:   Candidates need to spend a lot of money on ads to let people know who they are; the candidate with the most money will have a better chance of getting better known.

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