Microscopic cuts

THIS YEAR’S DEBATE OVER VETOES ISN’T ABOUT CUTTING GOVERNMENT

This week, the legislature will reconvene to take up the governor’s budget vetoes. Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed $57.1 million from the state budget, and predictably a variety of commentators and editorialists have fixed their attention on a handful of vetoes. The governor’s veto of the Arts Commission’s $2 million budget has attracted the most attention, along with her veto of $10 million in teacher pay raises and $3.4 million for special schools for talented young people. Several smaller projects were vetoed as well, including a museum and a proposed Columbia-Camden mass transit line, but these have attracted comparatively less attention.

These are taxpayer dollars, and each of these vetoes deserves consideration. Whether taxpayers should be required to support “the arts” (however defined) is a question worth debating, as is the question of whether a simple increase in funding for schools is the best – or only – way to improve the state’s longstanding bottom-of-the-nation educational ranking.

Even so, the larger context of this year’s budget debate makes all these controversies seem fairly insignificant. In fact, microscopically insignificant. Fifty-seven million dollars is a lot of money, but it’s only about 0.2 percent of this year’s total state budget of $23.6 billion. It’s only 5.7 percent of the roughly $1 billion by which this year’s budget has grown compared to last year’s. (Bear in mind: A billion is a thousand millions.) If all of the governor’s vetoes are sustained – highly unlikely, but supposing it happens – the dollar amount of the state budget will be almost exactly what it is now: instead of $23.6 billion, it’ll be about $23.4 billion.

Yearly debate over the state budget, as we pointed out when the 2012 budget passed, aren’t really about making sure core services get funded. These debates are about expanding political fiefdoms: funding new programs with ever-expanding mission statements, adding new staff and perquisites for officeholders, and giving bureaucrats more and more control over the state’s economy (think of the governor’s multimillion-dollar “closing fund” explicitly designed for corporate giveaways, or the $300 million web of “economic development” agencies).

This year’s debate over vetoes will likely convey the impression that the debate has to do with the size and scope of government. Indeed, one could be forgiven for concluding that that’s precisely the impression the debate is designed to convey. But it’s not about the size and scope of government at all. The outcome of the debate will make no appreciable difference in the fact that state government – to say nothing of the federal government – now takes up a historically massive 14 percent of the state’s economy.

Of course, it’s far too late in the budget process to debate the question of whether the government should be substantially expanded or reduced. The time to do that was at the beginning of the budget process, when the governor submitted her executive budget to the legislature. The purpose of the executive budget is to set the state’s budgetary priorities, which is why state law requires the legislature to hold joint open hearings on it. Unfortunately, and although the governor did submit her budget as the law requires, she mentioned nothing in her veto messages about the fact that the General Assembly not only doesn’t hold joint open hearings on the executive budget as the law requires, but routinely ignores the governor’s spending plan.

So: while we welcome any reduction in the size and scope of government – and even a microscopic reduction in the size of its yearly increase – we’re looking ahead to January. That’s when the governor will present her budget, and that’s when the General Assembly, assuming its leaders decide state law is important enough to follow, will debate the governor’s spending plan in joint open hearings.

If that happens, who knows – taxpayers may have a chance to influence the budget before it’s a done deal six or seven months later.

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