CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

 

4h ANNUAL WESTIE AWARDS

 WEATHER:

TIME FOR LEGISLATURE TO DO SOMETHING COURAGEOUS

By Andy Brack
Contributing Writer

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Legislators often don’t have the courage to do something really big for the state in one fell swoop. There’s always some kind of excuse: We don’t want to raise taxes. Or it costs too much. Or there are too many other needs.

Now, the state Board of Economic Advisors has a cup of courage: a $163 million surplus this year brought on by higher-than-projected corporate and individual income tax collections. The good news about the surplus is that it can be considered recurring dollars -- money that will continue to flow into state coffers every year, barring some huge recession. Over a decade, that means the state can expect $1.6 billion in extra revenues.

So, what to do with it? Typically, such huge pots are divvied up to pay for lots of comparatively small initiatives to assuage individual politicians and boost their pet projects -- a few million here for a pilot project, a few million there for a new road. In other words, the solution often is political only, not strategic.

But in a state with a long list of big needs, state lawmakers should direct money into making a big impact. Our suggestion: Spend it all on education to implement a statewide, voluntary pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds. Business people roundly agree this is the best investment in our future because it will add taxpayers to the workforce, cut crime and cut dependency. The cost to add around 20,000 kids to the 40,000 who already get some kind of pre-K? About $90 million a year. The rest of the money -- more than $75 million -- could be used to boost huge legislative underfunding of per-pupil funding for public education across the board.

For the last four years during the recession, state legislators wrote a special exception to allow a huge cut to mandated per-pupil funding levels. In the current school budget, for example, the law required $2,790 in funds spent on average per K-12 child. But the General Assembly appropriated $2,012 per child. In the budget that lawmakers are now working on for next year, the projected shortfall to legally-required funding for public education is $600 million.

Many people we asked suggested that the $163 million be steered to education. Historian Jack Bass, for example, suggested $100 million to restore funding cuts, with the rest to restore cuts to higher education and reduce tuition, which would boost the number of students eligible for lottery scholarships. The Rev. Joe Darby of Charleston suggested the money should be directed to equalize staffing, equipment, curriculum offerings and support programs at all public schools so that parents had real choices about schools.

“We should increase support for programs with proven effectiveness in the areas of early childhood education, teen pregnancy prevention, dropout prevention, child abuse prevention, etc.,” said Forrest Alton, CEO of the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “The success of our young people should be a political priority.”

Others, like S.C. Trucking Association CEO Rick Todd, said the money should be directed to the state’s ailing transportation infrastructure, which needs $29 billion in maintenance over the next two decades. “In this no-tax-increase political environment, I can’t think of a better use of monies than a capital program like road infrastructure.”

Other ideas:

Health Care: Expanding Medicaid coverage to cover thousands of more people without health insurance, said the AARP’s Patrick Cobb.

Helping people: “We should remove some of the perverse incentives that make it difficult for those getting state assistance to get back on their own two feet,” said George Stevens, president of the Coastal Community Foundation. “Earning a little bit of money sometimes triggers forfeiture of an entire assistance package. A little creative thinking and cash would correct these unintended consequences.”

Laptops for Students: Spend $140 million to provide a laptop or digital learning device to every public school first-grader, said Phil Noble of Charleston.

There are other good ideas — a high-speed rail line between Charleston and Greenville; restoring $210 million in cuts to local governments; and addressing long-time cuts to mental health programs.

But the point is, regardless of what is done with the new money, the legislature needs to do something that will make a palpable difference.

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