BRACK:   The General Assembly isn’t filled with policy Einsteins

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By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |   The list of recent big policy failures by the South Carolina General Assembly is downright impressive.

First is transportation infrastructure, which got into a deplorable condition during the 28 years it took state lawmakers to raise the gas tax so it could deal with $40 billion of highway needs, potholes, bridges and deferred maintenance.  At least they finally boosted the gas sales tax this year to start fixing the problem.  But they’ll have to come back to it because they didn’t index the sales tax hike to inflation.

Next is the state’s pension system for employees, which rang in as a $24 billion problem.  A few years back, lawmakers decided to raise the expected return on investment to a completely unrealistic level.  As a result – and in combination with the Great Recession and a whole bunch of really bad investment decisions – the value of the pension fund sank like a lead balloon.  So this year, lawmakers worked to fix a problem of their own making by charging taxpayers and employees more to shore up the fund.  Hooray.

These two policy failures have a pricetag of $64 billion, or eight times the value of total annual collections of income taxes, sales taxes and other fees that comprise the state’s yearly General Fund budget.

But don’t forget other debacles:

  • Public education. A 20+ year lawsuit over education spending in poor, rural counties that earned a region the name “Corridor of Shame.”  The state has essentially made 4-year-old public kindergarten free in these areas, but is still facing a huge problem of improving education in areas that generally aren’t growing and have low tax bases.
  • Higher education. This year when the S.C. House Ways and Means Committee suggested a bond bill to cover $500 million of long-ignored, deferred higher education infrastructure needs, college “wish lists” totaled more than $2.5 billion. The bill is still in committee.  Further compounding the problem is that state aid to colleges and universities has dropped to single digits of their budgets, forcing public tuition to levels that are the highest in the South.
  • Health care. To poke the federal government in the eye, the state refused $11 billion in health care money to expand Medicaid to allow 200,000 impoverished residents to get health insurance.  As a result, health costs remain high and there’s only one insurance company that provides insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

The list goes on:  Hackers stole private information of virtually every South Carolinian.  Prisons are underfunded and dangerously understaffed.  Three lawmakers have been suspended in recent months in an ongoing ethics investigation that nabbed the former House speaker and shows no signs of going away.

It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands.  It’s certainly enough to make you want to kick them all out of the General Assembly.

Now comes an icing-on-the-cake catastrophe:  The $9 billion failure of a project to build two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.  A 2007 act by the Einsteins of the General Assembly created conditions for a private utility and the state-owned utility to fund the project, shifting the burden to ratepayers and protecting investors.  Nobody envisioned a partner as big as Westinghouse would be forced into bankruptcy, crippling the project.  Only a few envisioned the possibility that the Base Load Review Act would have the unintended consequences that now may put ratepayers on the hook for the next 60 years.

It’s yet another South Carolina policy cluster.  And now that it’s in the open, lawmakers are scrambling like roaches caught in light to look like they’re seeking solutions.  They’re looking to take credit for wearing capes to fix something that should never have happened in the first place.

Yes, hindsight is 20-20.  But the General Assembly should have learned long ago to be more careful with the taxpayers’ money.  Let’s say this again:  It would be helpful for legislators to have an overall state policy plan instead of just making it up as they go along.

At this point, there’s no need for a special legislative session for lawmakers to preen about how they are going to fix yet another problem.  Rather, they should get to work quietly, develop well-thought-out plans and get it right for a change.

Andy Brack, editor and publisher of Statehouse Report, is now a full-fledged cynic. 

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