To the Contrary

January 28, 2009

Consider the costs of smaller government

"...the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." -- President Barack Obama, Jan. 20

"I'm not a big-government fan, but there are times when government needs to help." -- Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, Jan. 26

The next few weeks are shaping up to be pivotal ones for the Palmetto State, including far-reaching decisions on how public higher education will serve our state's citizens.

The first decision point ahead will be whether South Carolina, like Florida and most other states, will apply for federal funds likely to become available to the states to backfill deep appropriations cuts that have burdened several state agencies with layoffs, reduced campus public service programs and course offerings, and forced pay cuts for faculty and staff.

Gov. Mark Sanford has made no secret of his philosophical opposition to the federal economic recovery package now being crafted in Washington. When asked about intentions toward accepting the bill's federal aid for South Carolina, the governor's spokesman put it this way to reporters: "If checks come from D.C., then we will cross that road when we get there."

But such checks won't just "come from D.C." to South Carolina; Gov. Sanford must ask for them. As federal legislation stands now, without a request from the governor, South Carolina would appear to have no access to federal funds that other states will have to restore budget cuts recently made to K-12, colleges and universities over the past year. That's a particularly troubling prospect in South Carolina, since our state's higher education budget cuts have been deeper than in any other state in America -- 22 percent, or $4.7 million, at Winthrop University alone. Given state revenue projections that suggest more state cuts could be on the way, accepting federal recovery funds could mean a rescue that extends beyond education by stemming additional cuts to other critical programs, such as aid to the elderly and the disabled, or critical law enforcement and health services.

To many on both sides of party lines, the federal recovery plan isn't about philosophy but about making government work for the people it serves, especially in times of extraordinary need. Yet, ironically, Gov. Sanford continues to signal his intent to resist federal funds, instead asking for even deeper state cuts to higher education in the months ahead. He bases his position on his oft-stated belief that S.C. colleges and universities are "too numerous" and "inefficient."

Therein lies a critical second point of decision for South Carolina: How will higher ed be delivered here?

Notably, Gov. Sanford has never said that South Carolina's public colleges and universities aren't working -- because, in fact, they do work, despite persistent underfunding. In the past year, for instance, South Carolina's network of public universities has produced almost 15,000 bachelor's degrees alone -- bachelor's degree attainment being the biggest driver in building any state's per capita income. Half of those degrees came from institutions outside the politically influential regions around Columbia and Greenville, where the governor proposes to move higher education administration.

But instead of taking pride in those achievements and boasting of them nationally to recruit knowledge-based industries and jobs, the governor instead recently urged each citizen of York County and other outlying regions to not want "to hold on" to what they've got in terms of higher education access and economic activity. Instead, he urges they support his efforts to create a new and costly level of bureaucracy to administer higher education his way -- moving administrative services to Columbia where Winthrop and USC-Lancaster are concerned, and to Greenville in the case of York Technical College. (He even suggests USC-Lancaster could be closed entirely.) Students and faculty working so remotely from absent administrators over time inevitably will become more afterthoughts than the focal point of key decision-making that they should be.

The governor offers no cost estimates of what new, deeper levels of bureaucracy in Columbia and Greenville would cost. Nor does he estimate what York and Lancaster counties would lose in economic activity and students would lose in service if administrative functions took place 100-200 miles away from this region's campuses.

That is information that this and other outlying regions need, because it will affect how well higher education will work -- for students, for parents, and for businesses in regions beyond Columbia and Greenville that benefit from higher education's economic activity.

Any present or future South Carolina governor, of course, is entitled to put forth his ideas and ask citizens to sacrifice, especially in tough times. But in putting forth his proposals to centralize power and government service in some regions of the state at the expense of others to save money, while also disdaining opportunities to bring federal funds back home to South Carolina, Gov. Sanford owes all citizens a fully accurate representation of what these "savings" truly would cost South Carolinians.

Only then can South Carolinians in this region decide if we should be willing to give up what we have in order to have the "smaller" government the governor tells us we should want.

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