The recent self-congratulatory column by state Reps. Bobby Harrell, Brian White and Bruce Bannister might comfort South Carolina taxpayers concerned about the state’s financial well-being ... if only it were true.
The authors state:
“Washington could learn a great deal about fiscal responsibility from South Carolina. ... Families must weigh expenses against their income and prioritize things like food, shelter and utilities ahead of more discretionary spending.
“Likewise, a government cannot sustain services by living beyond its means. ... Washington prefers ‘deficit spending’ — spending money it doesn’t have on things our nation doesn’t need — while South Carolina’s Constitution mandates a balanced budget. This requires our state to prioritize funding for education, health care, law enforcement and infrastructure before tackling other issues.”
That sounds impressive — living within our means, avoiding deficit spending and addressing important needs first.
Unfortunately, that’s far from the reality in South Carolina.
Let’s look at transportation.
The state’s highway system is crumbling. Twenty percent of our bridges are rated structurally deficient or are weight-limited. The S.C. Department of Transportation has projected that it will cost $1.3 billion annually over the next 20 years to bring the road network up to a safe standard. That’s the existing system, with no new construction.
Last session the Legislature provided $500 million for repairs and maintenance.
How? By borrowing it — just like Congress — and imposing additional debt on South Carolina residents for another two decades. Our representatives have discovered it’s easier to balance your budget when you can the cover the shortfalls with a loan.
In Congress, the debate over borrowing is raging. In South Carolina, deficit spending is not remotely controversial. It’s a way of life.
Dig a little deeper and things become even more interesting. It turns out the state could have covered those costs without adding further debt, by using the funds allocated to the extension of I-526 to Johns Island — a project that does not appear on the state priority list.
Remember the authors’ endorsement of families that prioritize their expenditures? It’s a great rule, but it apparently does not apply to road projects.
Speaker Harrell is the primary proponent of this low priority project. Recently, he advanced a novel, and risky, scheme to fund it.
The state agency that is providing the money to pay for the project, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), ran out of bonding capacity about four years ago, leaving a funding shortfall of at least $136 million for the extension.
But in 2011, Harrell’s appointees to the STIB pushed through a resolution to promise future bonding capacity, when and if it is available, to the project, which will not be until sometime in the next decade.
Even Congress hasn’t gone that far, obligating future taxpayers not only to assume the liability of current debt, but directing the next generation to borrow even more money for our profligate expenditures.
To continue the household analogy, this is like taking money you should have used to fix the roof on your family’s house and buying a new swimming pool instead.
And since your credit card is maxed out, you sign a contract to borrow money a decade from now, when you hope you (or, more likely, your children) will have paid your credit card down enough to be eligible for another loan.
This is a scheme Bernie Madoff might have admired, but fiscal responsibility it is not.
Besides the increasing burden of debt shouldered by South Carolina taxpayers, why should we care about the political manipulation of road dollars?
Because transportation is one of the state’s most important responsibilities. It is not enough simply to maintain our existing roads and bridges. Our metropolitan areas are among the fastest growing in the country, with Charleston ranking twelfth out of the 381 metropolitan areas in the U.S.
To protect South Carolina’s quality of life and its economic future, we will need to expand our capacity to move people and freight.
This will take true leadership locally and in Columbia, because it will require hard choices about what we can afford and what we cannot. It will mean refraining from “spending money we don’t have on things our state doesn’t need.”
The first step will be for our leaders to tell the unvarnished truth about our infrastructure needs and our financial circumstances, instead of patting themselves on their collective backs with smug comparisons to the U.S. Congress.
Dana Beach is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.