Typically, the governor’s budget doesn’t matter much in South Carolina, where the state Legislature sets spending priorities. But Gov. Henry McMaster’s latest spending plan, released Tuesday, offers some sound suggestions like significantly boosting education funding, and lawmakers should take note.
The single biggest new item in Mr. McMaster’s budget — aside from a proposal to return millions of dollars in surplus revenue to taxpayers — is a 5 percent pay increase for all South Carolina teachers, which would raise salaries above the Southeastern average.
This is an entirely appropriate request given the state’s urgent teacher shortage, high turnover rate and the need to reduce average class sizes in some schools. It ought to be a no-brainer for the state Legislature.
A pay raise must be accompanied by efforts to train inexperienced or struggling teachers, however.
Similarly, plans to spend $100 million on bringing investment to rural school districts, put $63 million toward workforce-building programs through technical schools, use $46 million to hire resource officers, raise per-pupil funding by $31 million and use $5 million to replace old school buses are worthy recommendations.
Several of these needs were highlighted in The Post and Courier’s “Minimally Adequate” series, which lawmakers have taken as a challenge to address the state’s underperforming education system.
Mr. McMaster also asks for $2.2 million to help expand access to mental health professionals in schools. It’s a smart idea that could improve student outcomes, catch behavioral issues before they become severe and even save lives. Lawmakers should consider an even larger investment.
The spending plan also calls for a $15 million funding increase to support six new charter schools and 5,400 new students, a welcome affirmation of school choice.
The governor rightly recognizes that tuition at South Carolina public universities and colleges is troublingly high, a problem the state Commission on Higher Education has warned about for years. But his proposal to split $36 million among colleges that agree to not raise tuition this year is puzzling.
Certainly, freezing and even reducing tuition at the state’s institutions of higher education is an important goal. But a temporary freeze — especially one paid for by taxpayers — fails to address the underlying problems of profligate spending and flat enrollment.
State colleges and universities should be required to do more than simply postpone raising student costs for a year. They need long-term plans to balance their finances and make higher education more affordable.
The other major component of Mr. McMaster’s budget is a $200 million tax rebate, paid for with part of an estimated $1 billion budget surplus, about half of which is non-recurring.
Returning excess revenue to taxpayers and putting money back into South Carolina residents’ pockets is a good idea, of course. But so is using a one-time budget windfall to meet needs that have been long neglected or underfunded.
Balancing the two is critical.
South Carolina state agencies made more than $2 billion in surplus-related funding requests this year, for example. Many of those requests aren’t exactly pressing needs, but some — like replacing aging voting machines or repairing crumbling buildings — will need to be paid for eventually.
This year’s budget ought to be about looking forward. We should invest in our students and their educators, and channel South Carolina’s recent economic prosperity into an even stronger, more successful future.