Shirking of state law is tough on counties

For too long, the General Assembly has been passing the buck. The latest proposed budget for Aiken County makes that abundantly evident.

Although a number of factors have some prompted county administration to propose a millage rate increase, this is, in large part, tied to the lack of support from state lawmakers.

For decades, the state has obligated itself toward giving additional dollars to counties and municipalities through a measure known as the local government fund. The fund was largely viewed as a way to provide local relief for mandates created by the state.

It’s been an important source of revenue around the state, including in Aiken County, even with the cuts it has seen in recent years. In 1991, lawmakers instituted a law requiring 4.5 percent of the general fund revenue – of the completed fiscal year – to be appropriated into the fund for cities and counties.

However, the law was suspended in 2008 to deal with budget shortfalls resulting from the recession. Now, as the state and country appear to be slowly moving out of the recession, the Legislature continues to not live up to what state law originally required.

The most sensible approach would be putting together a formula that ebbed and flowed with the strength of the state’s general fund. In good years, local governments would have more to spend just as the state does. In bad years, less so. Instead, the state continues to handicap local governments by not sticking to the formula and undermining city and county councils.

The General Assembly has tried to make adjustments to the fund this year, although unsuccessfully. Two bills focused on the issue with one more sensible than the other.

A bill sponsored by S.C. Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston – H.3374 – would all but freeze the local government fund if passed. This misguided approach would continue to put burdens on local governments by keeping mandates imposed by the state in place without the necessary dollars to fulfill the requirements.

Merrill’s bill would increase the local government fund by 2 percent, but only in years when the state general fund is projected to increase by at least 4 percent – and that’s absent some kind of an extraordinary appropriation by the Legislature. ...

Another bill, sponsored by Eddie Southard, R-Berkeley, would take the more sensible approach and would phase in full funding for local governments over a three-year-period, but it hasn’t moved forward either. The fund was envisioned as a way to offset tax relief and some of the state’s functions that are performed at the county level. In the past few years, as the Legislature has suspended the fund, the dollars coming down from the state have been unpredictable. ...

These pressures should create a clear impetus for state lawmakers to push for more sensible, straightforward funding in the future.

In summary

Although the state’s economy is improving, state lawmakers still fail to live up to law requiring funding for local governments.