The South Carolina House just finished the shortest and quietest budget debate in recent memory. Though we managed to cut General Fund spending as a response to decreased tax revenue, we have not seriously addressed the real problem that we face on both a state and federal level – the voter’s expectation that the government should provide more.
Voters, both conservative and liberal, want the government to spend more. Whether it is increased education funding, free health care, new prisons or wars on crime, terror or illegal aliens, all of these government endeavors require money – money that, for the most part, is being borrowed by the federal government.
Though South Carolina cannot borrow on a state level, over a third of our total budget comes from funds flowing from the federal government directly into state agencies. So, we can say that we cut our General Fund spending by over 4% this year, but if we count the extra revenue from the federal government, our overall state budget increased over last year – mostly on borrowed money. Unfortunately, most voters, of all political persuasions, do not have a problem with taking the federal funds.
Which brings us back to the greatest political challenge of our time – how do we change voter expectations of what the government should be doing? The answer is simple, yet harsh. Elected officials need to effectively communicate both the actual cost and opportunity cost of the government providing specific services. It is not enough to merely set up internet access so that voters can see an agency’s checkbook. Transparency is more than a listing of sterile financial transactions.
Voters have a right to understand their exposure to future tax risk. Elected officials should require annual performance audits of all state agencies, including health, education, prisons and commerce. These audits should examine internal controls, effectiveness of specific programs, staff performance, and even the benefit of economic incentives such as tax breaks for certain industries. Upon completion of these audits each year, action should be taken to solve any negative findings.
As our population ages, we will be facing an increased expectation of the type of services that government should provide. Pressures on health services and state pensions will mount, driving us toward either bankruptcy or extreme taxation. We cannot afford the current expectation.
In an effort to provide the voters with this type of accountablity, I have co-sponsored a House rules change that would allow the Speaker to form an “audit” committee to perform these types of inquiries.