South Carolina’s $87 million surplus for the year that ended June 30 is good news not simply — or even primarily — because it gives state legislators more money to spend on state needs.
It’s good news primarily because it indicates that our economy is doing better than state prognosticators believed as recently as May; in all, the state collected about $130 million more than expected back in January, resulting in state revenue growth of 7 percent over the previous year.
Of course, the extra cash doesn’t hurt. Check that: It doesn’t hurt if it’s spent smartly.
Unfortunately, we are still not too far removed from a time when legislators routinely spent surplus funds recklessly, using one-time money to create new programs and fill new positions, with no reason to think the state would end up with a similar windfall the following year to continue paying those new bills. During that era, what passed for “responsible” spending of surplus and other one-time money was devoting it to parks and festivals and other pork-barrel projects that made legislators popular back home but contributed nothing to the common good of the state.
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Fortunately, there’s an obvious way to spend the extra money this year, a way that nearly everyone in government and business and the public in general seems to agree on: to repair our pockmarked roads and deteriorating bridges.
And to be clear, that’s not to build new highways. It’s to fix the ones we have.
Certainly the state has other needs. Our school buses continue to fall apart because the state is years behind in replacing them. Colleges and armories and the Mental Health Department and practically every other crevice of government have rolled up backlogs of deferred maintenance since the recession, and we’re going to have to come to terms with those needs.
For that matter, some will argue that the money should be used to help the Department of Social Services hire more case workers. Gracious knows it needs them, after the way lawmakers bled that agency for years. But it doesn’t do much good to hire a case worker, spend half a year training her and then have to let her go because the one-time money that paid her salary has dried up.
What DSS needs — what the public schools and so many other agencies need — is stable, recurring funding. By definition, year-end surplus money is not that.
Of course, we need stable funding for our roads as well. Whether you believe the Transportation Department’s inflated, include-every-insane-new-project-we-can-dream-up projection of $1.5 billion a year or the House’s barely maintain-the-status-quo projection of $400 million a year, most everyone agrees that we need to spend more on roads. And most everyone agrees that officials can’t take a smart, systematic approach to fixing our roads if they don’t have some assurance that they’ll keep getting money, year in and year out.
Spending the year-end surplus on road repair and maintenance doesn’t go very far toward meeting even a single year’s needs, and it certainly doesn’t reduce the need for the Legislature to provide a permanent, stable source of revenue, which lawmakers promised to do this year but didn’t. And legislators need to be fully cognizant of that — as they allocate the surplus to road repairs, to make a small dent in the backlog.