W ith about $1 billion in surplus money burning a hole in the state Legislature’s figurative pockets and more than double that amount in requests for funding from state agencies, lawmakers will have some tough spending decisions to make next year.
They should start with education.
About $545 million of the excess money in question isn’t renewable. It came from two previous budget surpluses and a planned surplus in this year’s budget. So that money needs to go toward one-time expenses.
The state Department of Education is asking for $40 million to replace aging school buses, the oldest of which are prone to breaking down or even catching on fire. New buses are a longstanding need and one worth taking care of.
Other one-time education needs include $60 million in new instruction materials and about $230 million in repairs and renovations at the state’s public colleges and universities.
The rest of the surplus comes from increased tax revenue. Gov. Henry McMaster won re-election in November pledging to cut taxes, but lawmakers ought to embrace the chance to finally shore up the state’s chronically underfunded education system.
South Carolina teachers, for example, got a mere 1 percent raise this year, which is hardly enough to keep up with increases in the cost of living. A 5 percent raise would cost about $155 million and bump teacher pay above the Southeastern average.
That would go a long way toward addressing the state’s teacher shortage. And it would start moving South Carolina schools beyond the pitiful “minimally adequate” standard to which they have too long been held.
Putting some money toward the state’s disastrously underfunded pension system would also be a wise decision. It’s more than $20 billion in the hole, and recently passed reforms won’t fully resolve that crisis.
South Carolina also needs to replace its voting machines with new ones that leave a paper trail — an expense of about $60 million.
It’s likely to cost $5 million to bring South Carolina driver’s licenses up to federal standards by the 2020 deadline.
There are dozens of other expenses the state has put off in the past that could use an injection of cash. But not all needs are equal.
South Carolina’s $1 billion surplus must be spent in a way that leaves the state stronger than before.
Investing in education first would be a smart choice.