State Budget: Enough to Fund Roads Already
THE GOOD NEWS: THE STATE HAS ENOUGH TO FUND ROADS.
THE BAD NEWS: LAWMAKERS WILL NEED TO GO WITHOUT PAY HIKES, CORPORATE WELFARE, AND PORK.
State budgets are a big deal. They’re more than just lists of things to spend tax dollars on. State budgets are comprehensive guides that show what the role of state government will be for an entire year through prioritizing what gets funded – and with how much money. $25.5 billion is a lot of money, and it would be nice to think legislators plan to debate how the money will get spent.
It would be nice to think, but it would be false. Lawmakers don’t value transparency in the budget process; indeed, they routinely ignore a state law requiring open hearings on the budget at the beginning of the legislative session. This year, however, lawmakers are apparently busy finding a way to avoid having a conference committee iron out differences between House and Senate versions of the budget. The House may amend the budget just passed by the Senate (in a way agreed upon beforehand in likely non-public meetings) and then send that budget back to the Senate which would vote to concur with the House version – thus avoiding a conference committee.
In other words, the really controversial part where things get added or taken out … that may be skipped altogether.
Given the recent history of battles between the Senate and House on the budget and other bills, why the sudden urge to “compromise”?
The answer might be the “optional” $12,000 pay raise for lawmakers that the Senate put in their budget – albeit unconstitutionally since it appears they didn’t actually allocate any funds for the raises in the budget. Amending the budget in the House to include the lawmaker pay-raise would be an easier way to “sneak” it in without the normal debate in a conference committee, a debate that’s usually covered in more detail by the media. In other words, avoiding a conference committee will allow lawmakers to avoid a messy debate over whether lawmakers deserve a pay hike.
And do they deserve one? Clearly, no. Consider the following.
“Our roads and bridges are falling apart! We need to generate more money for transportation!” If you had a nickel for every time a lawmaker has said some iteration of these lines, you might have enough money to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
One would think that if transportation funding were actually a priority, lawmakers would prioritize the taxes already collected for the purpose of repairing roads and bridges. Yet as much as lawmakers have taken the House and Senate floor to plead for more money for transportation, the budgets passed in both chambers don’t reflect this supposed concern. Instead, they’re depending on passing a transportation spending bill that will redirect money to the Infrastructure Bank so it can be bonded (creating more debt) and if amended as expected, would raise taxes as well. Well, after looking at the budgets passed by the House and Senate, it turns out they don’t need to raise taxes or take out more taxpayer backed bonds. The money is already there; only it’s being spent on corporate welfare and pork-laden earmarks.
We found at a bare minimum $644 million not currently in the Department of Transportation budget that could be transferred to the department.
Department of Commerce: $65,277,555. Even when not including federal funds, over $65 million budgeted for the Department of Commerce could be transferred to DoT with no harmful effects. State government does more harm than good by redistributing wealth from taxpayers to state-selected companies, as much of the money allocated is budgeted to do.
Rural Infrastructure Authority: $27,550,000. Essentially another arm of the Department of Commerce, this new agency doles out money for local projects that bureaucrats then appropriate.
Capital Reserve Fund: $127,791,525. Often used as a slush fund for lawmakers to fund pet projects, this money could be spent on actual capital projects – like fixing roads and bridges. Instead, they decided to fund things like:
- The Deal Closing Fund (plain ol’ corporate welfare): $24.9 million
- Locate SC Site Inventory: $6 million
- “Office of Innovation”: $1 million
- Department of Commerce “Research Initiatives”: $4 million
- Sesquicentennial State Park Splash Pad: $500,000
Infrastructure Bank Board: $150,453,276. Although this money would be spent on “transportation,” it would be spent based on the skewed priorities of the board that has a history of funding very few counties, and road expansions, not repairs. Money is also put in this agency so it can be bonded at a much higher rate than it can in the DoT budget.
Non-recurring Provisos (From FY14 Surplus): $187,275,934. Although it’s not prudent to rely on “one-time” money to fund major state functions, if lawmakers were serious about their concerns for transportation spending, they’d use these funds in conjunction with others to fund transportation needs. These are just a few examples-mostly from the Senate budget they decided to fund instead:
- Partnerships for Innovation-TransformSC: $200,000
- Deal Closing Fund (corporate welfare): $12.4 million
- SC Council of Competitiveness: $750,000
- Sports Development Fund: $2 million
- Congressional Medal of Honor Bowl: $100,000
- Historic Columbia-Woodrow Wilson Family Home: $600,000
- Southeastern Wildlife Expo: $200,000
- Marion County Workforce Development Training Facility: $500,000
- U. of Charleston-Purchase of Surplus State Property: $2 million
- Multi-Purpose Business/Entertainment/Sports Complex-City-County of Spartanburg: $380,000
“The Money Tree”: $86,000,000. The Board of Economic Advisors recently added roughly $86 million to the state’s next fiscal year, thus giving lawmakers more money to “work with.” Although Governor Haley argued in the widely ignored executive budget that the money that falls from this “money tree” should be used for transportation, it’s unclear what lawmakers will use it for. However, it could be assumed that the House will use this extra money to help conform to the budget that the Senate desires (to avoid a conference committee).
Legislator Pay Raises: $2,000,000. Although the additional $1,000/month for in-district expenses would be optional, the budget will need to cover the full amount since lawmakers can be counted on to take the full amount. (Remember, in-district expenses at the present level are “optional,” too.)
If lawmakers really valued funding transportation, they could easily use these items to accomplish that end. The money is there if they want to use it. They would just have to give up their raises, pork projects, the power to hand out corporate welfare. Don’t hold your breath.