Opinion Columns & Blogs

February 7, 2009

Governing by spreadsheet

Winthrop University President Anthony DiGiorgio's recent letters to The Herald, in which he seeks to set Gov. Mark Sanford straight on higher-education funding, remind me of the dictum about teaching a pig to dance: All it does is upset the pig.

To his credit, Sanford seldom takes umbrage when critics refute his statistics or ignore his suggestions, which is what the S.C. General Assembly has done with the governor's budget proposals for years.

DiGiorgio, of course, knows that trying to reason with Sanford is pointless; he wants only to point out flaws in the governor's plan for consolidating administration of the state's institutions of higher learning.

To take Sanford's ideas to their illogical extreme, why not ship all college administration to India? That would model off-shoring practiced by many large U.S. corporations. After all, Sanford constantly preaches that government must adopt the tactics of business.

That a model designed to maximize stockholder profits won't work for government never seems to enter his mind. Nor does he say whose business practices government should emulate. Wachovia's? GM's?

Ironically, the news media continue to attribute undue significance to Sanford's annual budget proposal. Legislators, on the other hand, politely applaud the governor then toss his plan in the waste can.

Disregard for his ideas can be traced to a couple of factors, including Sanford's lack of deference to the Legislature, seen especially in his continual efforts to upstage lawmakers. Remember the pooping piglets he carried onto the House floor?

More to the point, he often doesn't know what he's talking about.

Sanford's ignorance about how government works is breathtaking. Sure, he looks good in a dark suit, with his deep tan and every handsome hair in place, but his ideas stem from a no-taxation, libertarian ideology -- not from reality.

For example, his proposal to close three branches of the University of South Carolina, including USC-Lancaster, ignores harm that would be caused to students who either cannot afford to move or can't meet the more rigorous admission standards of four-year institutions.

Sanford wants to govern by spreadsheet. He reads somewhere that X percent of an agency's expenses can be eliminated by centralizing accounting functions or by reducing electricity consumption then has a minion feed numbers into a computer; Voila, a budget is born.

Sanford's sophistry was best illustrated a few years back when he proposed that money for the State Museum gradually be supplanted by private donations. It was soon pointed out that the museum had certain obligations the state couldn't disown -- such as a mortgage!

Our governor would be merely comical were it not for the principal consequence of his ineptitude -- opportunities missed.

Admittedly, many of South Carolina's problems are aggravated because too much power resides with the Legislature and too little with the Governor's Office. Nevertheless, that structural weakness didn't keep some of our more enlightened recent governors -- notably Dick Riley, a Democrat, and Carroll Campbell, a Republican -- from using the bully pulpit to inspire and cajole legislators to enact education reform.

Sanford, however, would rather joust with the state Employment Security Commission over jobless statistics or jet to Washington, D.C., to posture against a federal bailout than stoop to the hard labor of consensus building.

If the governor needs suggestions on how to be productive, here are a few:

• Push legislators to revoke or amend the 2005 law that ties school funding to sales taxes, resulting in a loss of a third of a billion dollars for our schools;

• Demand they raise the state cigarette tax to the national average;

• Raise heck about a proposed payday lending bill, which perpetuates obscenely high interest rates for poor South Carolinians;

• Decry the shift of state money from colleges and universities that educate most of our children to the three "research universities" favored by power brokers;

• Stop blathering about the corporate income tax, which isn't the principal deterrent to economic development, and start supporting public institutions that help build a better work force.

If he did half as much during his remaining term, the governor's worst critics one day could say, "You know, that pig could dance!"

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