Category Archives: Spending

The bad news: Our $206 Trillion Fiscal Gap

Laurence Kotlikoff, Joseph Von Nessen and Doug Woodward.

Laurence Kotlikoff, Joseph Von Nessen and Doug Woodward.

There was good news and bad news today at USC’s 36th Annual Economic Conference.

To be more specific, there was mildly, moderately good news, and really Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad news.

I’ll start with the good, which is on the local level. USC economists Doug Woodward and Joseph Von Nessen said that while growth has sort of leveled off in South Carolina, we’re in for a fairly good 2017. Advanced manufacturing remains strong, and things are going really well in construction — particularly along the coast — and retail. Merchants should have a good Christmas. If there’s a concern, it’s that employers are now having trouble finding qualified employees, particularly ones who are up to the challenges of automation — humans who can work with robots, basically.

On the other hand, we’re basically doomed.

That’s the message I got from the conference’s keynote speaker, Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University, who started out noting that few Americans seem to have a clue what a fiscal hole we’re really in. Political leaders don’t speak of it, he said, pausing to complain about the “content-free election season” we just experienced. (Of course, you’d expect him to be dissatisfied with that, since he actually ran for president — unsuccessfully, he added dryly.) Oh, sure, they might speak of the $20 trillion national debt — which he noted isn’t really that, since the Fed has bought back $5 or 6 trillion of it — but they ignore the bigger problem.

That’s the true Fiscal Gap, as he calls it, which includes the liabilities that have been kept off the books. You know, Social Security, Medicare and the like — liabilities that aren’t acknowledged in the federal budget, but which are obligations every bit as binding as if the future recipients held Treasury bonds.

That adds up to $206 trillion.

There’s more bad news.

If we think in terms of what it would take for the nation to deal with that liability, our government is currently 53 percent underfinanced. That means that to meet these obligations, we’d have to have 53 percent across-the-board tax increases.

It gets worse.

If we don’t raise taxes by 53 percent now (or make drastic cuts to current and future spending that might somewhat reduce that need), then they’ll have to be raised a lot more on our children and grandchildren.

Dr. Kotlikoff has been raising the alarm about this for years. Here’s an oped piece he wrote for The New York Times in 2014. As he concluded that piece:

What we confront is not just an economics problem. It’s a moral issue. Will we continue to hide most of the bills we are bequeathing our children? Or will we, at long last, systematically measure all the bills and set about reducing them?

For now, we blithely sail on. But prospects aren’t good. None of the three economists, who spoke at a press conference before the event, had anything good to say about incoming political leadership on the national level. In fact, quite a bit of concern was expressed about 3 a.m. Tweets, any one of which could trigger a trade war with China before the day is out.

I came away feeling a bit like Damocles — or rather, like the nation is Damocles, since the sword fell on my head sometime back. And we just elected a guy who thinks he’s a national hero because he interfered with one business that was going to send some jobs out of the country (an interference in the market that none of the economists think was a good idea).

I’m not holding my breath for any leadership on closing the Fiscal Gap. (Nor would I be had the Democrats swept the elections.) Are you?

"What's THAT hanging up there?" "Oh, that? I call it the Fiscal Gap..."

“What’s THAT hanging up there?” “Oh, that? I call it the Fiscal Gap…”

Do you have questions about the penny tax?

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I know some of you do, to say the least.

Maybe you’d like to go to this:

For Immediate Release

September 8, 2016

**MEDIA ALERT**

     WHERE DOES YOUR MONEY GO?  

Educational Forum Planned for Richland County Penny Tax

WHAT:    “Pennies Impacting People” Educational Forum

WHEN:    6:30 – 7:30 p.m., Thursday, September 15

WHERE:   Richland Library Main, Third Level Programming Space
1431 Assembly St.
Columbia, SC 29201

WHO:      Free & open to the public

Are you curious about how the Richland County Penny Tax works? Members of the community will have an opportunity to learn about specific projects that impact local transportation – including roads, sidewalks and greenway infrastructure. WIS News 10 Anchor Judi Gatson will lead a discussion with representatives from:

  • Richland County Council
  • Richland County Transportation
  • Richland Penny Program Development Team
  • The Comet transit system
  • Citizens for a Greater Midlands

A question-and-answer session will follow.

For questions, please contact Emily Stoll at 803-587-3637 or email estoll@richlandlibrary.com.

If I go, I might ask them to please stop using “impact” as a verb. We all have our priorities…

Your thoughts about a TIF for Finlay Park?

This doesn’t move me much either way, but I was just wondering whether any of y’all have strong opinions about this proposal floated by the Columbia mayor:

A multimillion-dollar renovation of Finlay Park and a pedestrian-friendly remodeling of parts of two major downtown streets might be within reach if local governments will agree to a controversial financing plan being floated by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.Steve Benjamin Twitter

Benjamin said last week that he’s working on a proposal to create a small taxing district that would capture property taxes on buildings along Assembly Street stretching north to Laurel Street, west to just behind the rundown park and south to Washington Street.

The largest source of income would come from a proposed $60 million to $70 million, 15-story apartment building called The Edge that a Chicago-based company wants to construct near the Richland County library, Benjamin said….

Mayor Steve may propose this at an August council meeting, so you’ve got time to either encourage him or head him off with a tidal wave of protest…

This was the only picture of Finlay Park that I could find in my archives -- it's from a rehearsal of "Pride and Prejudice" in 2012.

This was the only picture of Finlay Park that I could find in my archives — it’s from a rehearsal of “Pride and Prejudice” in 2012.

Penny Tax leads to… a sidewalk! So all you critics shut up, OK?

sidewalk

Yikes!

I got an email announcement from the Penny Tax program (maddening tagline, “Pennies Impacting People,” which I am not making up) trumpeting a triumphant milestone in the tax’s transformation of our local infrastructure:

A new sidewalk in the county has officially opened thanks to funding by the transportation penny sales tax. Richland County and the Richland Penny Program held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday, May 20 for the Windover Street Sidewalk Project.

“Completing projects and improving the quality of life for our residents is what the Transportation Penny Program is all about,” said County Councilman Torrey Rush. “The sidewalk may seem like a small project compared to the road widenings we have on the list, but this project is a big deal to the surrounding community.”…(read more)

Yeah, it kinda does. Seem small, I mean. Yeah, I know, if you live on that road and have to get around in a wheelchair this is a great improvement for you. But if you’re one of the taxpayers wanting some answers on what benefit you’re getting… it’s not so great.

At least Paul Livingston had the good sense to list some larger projects that are getting built…

No, wait. He didn’t. He referred us to the website, which touts…

Yikes again…

pedestrian bridge

An exchange regarding county’s handling of the Penny Tax

Richland County Council’s Paul Livingston stepped out into the line of fire today with an unabashed defense of the county’s doings with an op-ed piece headlined, “Facts show Richland penny tax is a success.”

If I’d been standing near him at the moment the piece hit the Web, I’d have moved away quickly. (But I’d have been cool about it, acting like I’d suddenly remembered something I need to run home for or something. Wouldn’t want to look cowardly or anything.)

An excerpt:

livingston3

Paul Livingston

What began as a welcome audit of the program has morphed into an effort to undermine one of the best hopes Richland County has of reaching its full economic potential while providing a consistent, quality transit and transportation network that enhances the quality of life for all citizens.

I have not seen any evidence to support claims of illegal activity and corruption on the county’s part. Integrity is extremely important to me, and I take it personally when someone attacks my integrity.

County Council has only followed the will of the people. We haven’t done anything different than what voters requested and approved….

The fact is that a solid foundation has been laid to deliver on the promise of a modern bus system and better roads, bikeways, sidewalks and other special projects that will improve transportation.

The fact is that the COMET, crippled by a 45 percent reduction in service a few years ago, is now flourishing: It has restored lost service, introduced new routes, improved bus stops, adopted new technology to enhance riders’ experience, and more. Ridership has increased 150 percent.

And our roads and sidewalks are being fixed. Already, 76 roads have been paved or resurfaced, and other dirt road paving and resurfacing projects are underway….

But go read the whole thing at thestate.com.

An alert reader has pointed me to a tough rejoinder posted by Susan Quinn, a Facebook friend of mine (and, a quarter-century back, a student of mine that one semester that I taught a newswriting course at USC).

Here’s what Susan said:

Susan Quinn

Susan Quinn

While Mr. Livingston basks in the glow of a few dozen county road getting their potholes patched thanks to the Penny Transportation Tax, let’s recap some of the facts he evidently doesn’t wish to deal with.
FACT 1: The Penny Tax Development Team LLC has never obtained the required city or county business licenses and could be required to repay fees and possibly fines.
FACT 2: Millions of taxpayer dollars have been filtered to numerous outside PR firms when the County itself has a full-service PR department. I’m referring to Banco Bannister and Campbell Consulting (which, BTW, provided no documentation for work performed). I’m also referring to other businesses who have been awarded (using the phrase, “allowed to steal” has such a negative connotation) thousands of taxpayer dollars for alleged PR services (including one business …Strategic Business and Politics, LLC…which received $169,687 and which has its office in a UPS Store…sound fishy?)
FACT 3: The Penny Tax Development Team LLC has submitted exorbitant monthly invoices for items such as cars, cell phones, computers, internet services, printer paper and gourmet coffee. They’ve even submitted invoices for pest control services! And those pest control services did nothing to control the pests robbing us taxpayers! These expenses totaled over $35,000 FOR ONE MONTH, according to information obtained under a Freedom of Information request. And these are just some of the expenses the county will actually admit to!
FACT 4: Let’s not forget the $300,000 deals to people paid who had no training to do the work they were hired for, like the former City Councilman attorney who needed training on doing title searches and the former USC cheerleader turned real estate agent.
FACT 5: And let’s also recall the hundreds of thousands of dollars filtered to select individuals through the “Mentor-Protégé” program…a phony program that never even existed!
These are just a few facts that have come to the surface in the cesspool that is Richland County government. There are bound to be more as our county leaders get away with their multi-million (billion?) dollar blatant fleecing of us tax payers.

Perhaps you’d like to weigh in as well…

Graham gets award that won’t help him with the base, but really should

This just in from Lindsey Graham:

Graham Named ‘Fiscal Hero’ For Work To Address National Debt

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) was named a ‘Fiscal Hero’ by the Campaign to Fix the Debt for his work during the 114th Congress to improve the nation’s fiscal future and address the core drivers of the national debt.fixthedebt

“Senator Graham has worked through a variety of channels to draw attention and find solutions to the nation’s fiscal challenges,” said Maya MacGuineas, Head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt. “While many lawmakers have chosen to bury their heads when it comes to these issues, Senator Graham has shown courage and leadership and has been willing to stand up for what is right for the country – even when it’s not easy to do so.”

“The longer we wait, the more severe and difficult the choices will be to fix the debt,” MacGuineas continued. “Yet very few Members of Congress take this problem seriously. Those who do, like Senator Graham, deserve our thanks and praise.”

Honorees included 26 members of the House and 21 Senators from both parties, covering a range of political views.

To be named a Fiscal Hero, lawmakers distinguished themselves by casting fiscally responsible votes; pushing their party leaders to make addressing the debt a priority; leading bipartisan policy efforts; and engaging and educating constituents.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt is a nonpartisan movement to put America on a better fiscal and economic path.  More information on the group can be found on its website:http://www.fixthedebt.org/

#####

The nice thing about this organization is that, unlike too many other groups these days, it is transparent about who is behind it.Ballentine - Warthen Ad

Here’s the steering committee of Fix the Debt. Starting with Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson themselves, the list includes such luminaries as Ed Rendell, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Domenici and Sam Nunn. I see a list like that and I think, I may not automatically agree with everything these guys come up with, but I’m certainly going to give it a respectful listen.

But these are just the kinds of folks that the great populist mass is rising up against these days, isn’t it?

So Lindsey Graham should be proud to have the praise of such a group, but it’s not going to do much to heal the divisions between him and the restive members of his base…

Speaker Lucas is right to trash the Senate GOP roads plan

SCRoadsBandaidAriailW

I understand from various sources that the Senate today is debating, and plans to vote on, the “roads plan” that I excoriated last week. Here’s hoping it’s not going well.

As Cindi wrote the other day, the GOP proposal has its good parts, including real reform in governance of DOT. But it also contains an absolute dealbreaker, ladies:

If the legislation skipped over Section 4, Gov. Nikki Haley would be correct to say it’s “exactly what we need.” We would have the reform we need, and the Legislature could devote some one-time money to roads again this year and adopt a long-term funding plan next year that befits the reformed Transportation Department.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t skip Section 4, which commits not just this General Assembly but every General Assembly in perpetuity to siphoning $400 million out of our state’s general budget fund and giving it to the Transportation Department.

The result is a bill that promises to break trust with the voters and strangle out other state obligations and, at bottom, isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

For as long as we have been paving roads, we have collected a gas tax and driver fees to build and maintain those roads, on the theory that people inside and outside of South Carolina who use our roads the most should pay the most for them.

We have collected sales and income taxes to pay for our schools and courts and state police and child protection and economic development and environmental protection and most other state services.

The Senate plan changes that, dramatically. It diverts $400 million in sales and income taxes — more than 5 percent of the state budget — to pay for roads. That means we have $400 million less — not just next year but every year going forward — to pay teacher salaries, including extra pay to reward and attract the best teachers for the neediest students, to pay cities and counties for holding elections and performing other duties the state requires them to perform, to hire caseworkers to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents, to employ the judges who lock up the bad guys and the prison guards who keep the bad guys from escaping and the scientists who test our water to make sure it’s safe to drink, and everything else.

The roads diversion breaks trust with voters, in much the same way lawmakers do when they raid trust funds….

Make no mistake: A proper roads bill includes both proper reform and a gas tax increase. And it most assuredly does not include an open-ended raid on the funding for everything else the state of South Carolina does.

If Harvey Peeler manages to ram through this awful mess today, it will be up to the House to kill it. And Speaker Jay Lucas said it best last week:

1126136229“For 323 days, the Senate has had every opportunity to show leadership and propose a real, long-term solution for road repair in South Carolina. The current Senate amendment simply kicks the can further down the road and frankly, into a pothole. The General Assembly has been using general fund dollars to slap a band-aid on roads for years with very little to show for it. I urge the Senate to give this issue the attention that it requires and rally around a proposal with a long-term solution that keeps our families safe and our economy thriving.”

 

 

 

That’s no roads deal. It’s a cut-everything-else deal…

I’m running from meeting to meeting today, but here’s a topic to get y’all started:

The “good” news is that they don’t cut income taxes — which, of course, was always an insane, utterly irrelevant condition imposed by the governor.

So basically, it’s a wash. It’s a deal that does nothing to address the need for an adequate revenue stream for roads…

Even Darth Stewie was more fiscally responsible than Richland County Council

OK, follow me here; I’m going to bounce around a little…

Remember how we were talking about the new Star Wars movie earlier this week? Well, Alexandra Petri was riffing on that a bit, or rather on the stupid campaign by some racists to get a boycott of the new film going (yeah, good luck with that, Jim Bob), and she noted facetiously that there were far more defensible reasons to object to the franchise, including this:

Death Stars are the ultimate wasteful government spending project. At best, the constant construction of Death Stars is Keynesian economics at its very worst, trying to keep people employed by pouring money into giant holes in space. Does the Imperial military even want these? Given their obvious defects, it seems unlikely. Probably what it wants are helmets you can see out of or armor that works, and the Empire has not given it that yet.

Ah, but Ms. Petri missed the one most wasteful thing about the Death Star, which was that it was designed to be doomed, as “Family Guy” pointed out so effectively:

You’ll note that in this version, the Death Star didn’t get the glaring flaw addressed in a timely fashion because Darth Stewie insisted on getting some cost estimates.

Well, good for him. Even though he’s supposed to be an embodiment of evil, he’s more fiscally responsible than Richland County Council:

Richland County Council voted this week to hold its annual retreat in downtown Charleston early next year, despite having multiple local options presented to them and without having cost estimates to judge their decision by.

The retreat, at which council members and staff discuss plans for major policy items for the coming year, will be held Jan. 27-29, 2016, at Embassy Suites on Meeting Street. Council voted 8-3 to hold the retreat in Charleston, with council members Julie-Ann Dixon, Bill Malinowski and Seth Rose dissenting.

Dixon, Malinowski and Rose voted to hold the retreat at the Richland County Administration Building in Columbia.

Embassy Suites in Columbia and the YMCA in Lexington were both offered as options for Jan. 27-29.

Malinowski said his rationale for holding the retreat locally was threefold: to save money, to spend the money within the community and to give citizens an easy opportunity to attend the meeting if they wish.

“I think the people should have easy access to the government, and we’re not doing that,” Malinowski said….

I told you I was going to jump around a bit. But I got there in the end, didn’t I?

Arts advocates gear up to fight veto yet again

Back in the dark ages when The State and other papers were produced on a mainframe computer, the Atex system I used both here and in Wichita had something called “SAVE/GET” buttons. They enabled you to store simple, repetitive bits of copy — say, your byline — and insert them into a story with just one keystroke.

So whenever someone felt like he was having to write the same story over and over (a common feeling in the news biz), he’d say, “I need to put this on a SAVE/GET key.”

Well, I’m guessing that by now, the folks over at the Arts Alliance feel that way about their annual appeals to override Gov. Haley’s vetoes:

Miss Mona at the Statehouse

“ART WORKS in South Carolina”

REMINDER!

ARTS ADVOCACY CALL TO ACTION!

The vote takes place Monday, July 6.

Take a few minutes now to contact your legislators 

and ask them to override veto # 21.

 

The Governor has issued a veto eliminating 

$1 MILLION for Arts Education.

The House and Senate included $1 million in the S.C. Department of Education’s budget for a partnership with the S.C. Arts Commission. These funds are intended to provide more arts education for more children in more ways, including in-school, after-school and summer programs. These new efforts grew out of a long-term collaboration between the Dept. of Education and the Arts Commission.

TAKE ACTION NOW! The Legislature returns July 6 to take up vetoes. Email or call your House and Senate members and ask that they vote to override Veto # 21 to ensure that S.C. children, especially those in underserved, high poverty areas, have access to additional arts education opportunities.

Feel free to use the SCAA’s 2015 General Assembly Contact List by clicking HERE or at the SCAA’s websiteYou can also use these links: 

House

http://www.scstatehouse.gov/member.php?chamber=H

Senate

http://www.scstatehouse.gov/member.php?chamber=S

Please feel free to share this Call to Action with your friends and colleagues and through social media. Keep up with the latest budget activity and other important arts news by following the SCAA on Facebook and Twitter — just click our icons below!  Thank you!

SUPPORT THE SOUTH CAROLINA ARTS ALLIANCE!

Please take the time now to support the important work of the South Carolina arts Alliance as the only statewide advocacy organization that advocates for ALL the ARTS and we have a proven record of success!

Just go to:

www.scartsalliance.net and click the “Donate” button. You can pay on line at our secure web form or use it to indicate other forms of payment.  Your contribution is 100% tax deductible.   

 

Thank YOU for your support!

Betty Plumb, Executive Director
South Carolina Arts  Alliance

The Senate, as is its wont, resists reforming DOT

While I think it’s great the Senate is trying to come up with even more money to fix our roads, I have to agree with Speaker Lucas on this one:

State senators passed their own version of a plan Tuesday to raise money to repair the state’s crumbling roads, setting up a crash with their counterparts in the S.C. House.

The collision came as the Senate Finance Committee voted 14-8 to replace a House road-repair plan with a Senate proposal. The Senate plan would raise more money for roads — roughly $800 million a year versus $427 million — but also increase the gas tax more — by 12 cents a gallon versus 10 cents….

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said he was “extremely disappointed” the Senate committee did not debate the various parts of the House bill, instead substituting its own proposal.

Lucas called the House’s 87-20 passage of its own roads plan two weeks ago a “courageous vote,” adding senators focused only on “dollar signs,” not the other reforms in the House plan.

State Rep. Gary Simrill, the York Republican who sponsored the House bill, said the resounding House vote — enough to withstand a promised Haley veto — was because that proposal also included reforming the State Infrastructure Bank and S.C. Department of Transportation.

“The Senate bill … has nothing for reform. It has nothing for right-sizing DOT,” Simrill said. “It is just a funding (proposal).”…

Funding the roads without fixing DOT is almost as bad as reforming DOT without funding the roads — as Cindi pointed out today.

We need to do both, and we’ve needed to do both for a long, long time. It’s time lawmakers move away from the past two decades of failing to do either.

Let’s ask the question: Does SC need SC State?

Or to ask it another way, does the state of South Carolina need to keep propping up an institution that has become a money sinkhole, and is not delivering on its mission, with a 13.7 percent four-year graduation rate?

This is a question, of course, that has hovered out there since USC and other formerly white institutions were integrated: Given that other state institutions are open to all, do we need a separate college that formerly existed just for folks who couldn’t get in elsewhere?

And when we ask that, we hear various arguments for why an institution like SC State — or such private colleges as Benedict — have a greater affinity for, and understand better how to educate, a portion of the population that still lacks the advantages and support systems that middle-class whites take for granted. That such historically black institutions are better at meeting such students where they are, and lifting them to where they want to be.

And perhaps that is the case.

But at some point, we need to look at whether that job of lifting up the disadvantaged is getting done, and how much we are spending on dubious returns.

Note:

Struggling S.C. State University wants an added $13.7 million from House budget writers to pay off a $6 million state loan and improve operations at the college, which has one of the worst graduation rates in the state.

The Orangeburg college must get out “from under this cloud” to improve its graduation rate, S.C. State president Thomas Elzey said after he made the school’s budget presentation Wednesday to S.C. House members.

“The negative kind of statements about the quality of this university and the value of this university (need) to be taken off the table because we are valuable, and we do offer quality,” Elzey said.

However, legislators focused on S.C. State’s financial and academic woes.

S.C. State’s enrollment has fallen 20 percent recently but the school failed to cut its budget to match lost tuition payments. As a result, the state’s only historically black public university owes vendors $10 million in unpaid bills. To reduce costs, cuts have been made to staff and are being considered for athletics, the school’s president said.

The school wants its state taxpayer money doubled – to nearly $27 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1, including money to pay off the state loan – from $13 million this year.

That request does not include any money to pay back a $12 million state loan – to be issued over three years – that the Joint Bond Review Committee approved in December….

I added the bold-faced emphasis in those two places.

An institution that in recent months and years has only been in the news for financial and leadership failures wants its appropriation doubled to get out “from under this cloud?” And then what? What are the realistic prospects going forward? What do we really expect in terms of improvement and reduced need for state infusions of money?

When the bond review committee gave the school that $12 million “loan” in December, Gov. Haley said they “gave it away because they know it can’t be paid back.” And I’m not seeing any indications that she was wrong to say that.

So… where are we going with this? Where can we realistically expect to be in five years if the state keeps funneling in the money?

And at what point is it not worth it anymore?

Even hometown Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter says “we’re going to have to exercise some tough love” with SC State. But how much more love of any kind is it worth investing?

These are very tough questions that everyone involved is hesitant to articulate. Maybe these questions don’t occur to anyone, but that would surprise me.

There may be a million — or 27 million (wait; 39 million counting money to pay back the loan) — reasons why I’m wrong (and heartless and insensitive) to raise such questions. I hope there are. I want to hear them.

But I thought I’d play the part of the little kid in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, if only to see if y’all can come up with those great answers for me. I want to be embarrassed for having asked such silly questions.

But I ask them because it seems that we’re just stumbling along from crisis to crisis here. And I think it’s useful to step back, and ask where we’re going, and whether we want to go there, and whether what we’re doing is getting us there…

Haley’s ‘solution’ for roads: Rob the general fund

On my way home last night, listening on the radio, I heard some things from our governor that sounded pretty good to me, including her continuing initiatives to try to help out poor, rural schools. It was refreshing to hear a South Carolina Republican say, in such a prominent venue, “for the first time in our history, we acknowledged that it costs more to teach those children mired in poverty than those born into a secure economic situation.”

I was less enchanted a moment later, when she announced, “And all of this will be done without spending a single new tax dollar.” In other words, any gains we make in education will be accomplished by cutting back on something else that state government does.

And that brings us to her proposal on paying for roads, which is essentially to take the money out of the general fund, underfunding some other state function.

She says she can go for doing the right and logical thing, the obvious thing we should do without any conditions or contortions — raise the gas tax. But only if we cut the unrelated income tax. (And restructure the transportation agency, which of course is fine — I’ve advocated it for more than two decades — although not necessarily a thing we should hold our breath on while roads and bridges fall apart.)

The foolishness of this would be immediately apparent to everyone if it were a one-to-one swap. If the income tax was dedicated to paying for roads, then no one could miss the idiocy of raising revenues for roads with the left hand while lowering them with the right.

But the income tax doesn’t pay for roads; it goes into the general fund to pay for the rest of government. And among the hate-the-government crowd, the Haley proposal will make sense. How do they get there? By clinging to the belief that most government spending is waste anyway. And to the even more absurd belief that if you just cut off the money tap, efficiencies will magically appear, and only the “waste” will be cut.

I’ll say to this what I always say to such proposals: If you believe the general fund can do without those revenues, then tell us what you want to cut. Make the cuts first, and then reduce the no-longer-needed revenues.

But they won’t do that. That would be hard. They prefer the magical-thinking approach — just cut off the money, and everything will work out OK.

The honest thing would be to say, here is the thing that I think is less important than funding roads. But that would incur a political cost. The governor, and those who will support her idea, just want the warm-and-fuzzy credit that comes from cutting a tax, any tax.

This is the kind of proposal you make when you’re more interested in staying in the good graces of the Grover Norquists than you are in governing.

I think our governor has matured in office in a number of ways. She used to call the discomfort of mainstream Republicans over her sudden rise “a beautiful thing,” with a twinkle of malice in her eye. Now, she uses that phrase in a more positive way:

Whether I’m in California or Connecticut, Montreal or Minnesota, the story of South Carolina’s success is front and center. Everywhere we go there is excitement – and frankly, not a small amount of envy – over who we are and what we’ve been able to accomplish. It’s a beautiful thing….

But the deal she is proffering on roads is a dereliction of responsibility.

Again, if we want better roads, we should dig into our pockets (and into the pockets of visitors who use our roads) and pay for them. Magic beans are not a solution.

I do well on the serious tests, badly on the silly ones

Pew quiz2

The trend continues.

There was a story in The Washington Post this morning about the fact that “One third of Americans think the government spends more on foreign aid than on social security.”

Stupid one third. Of course, this is a continuation of the stubborn belief that we spend some huge proportion of our budget on foreign aid, when we spend about 2 percent on it. People continue to get this wrong, against all reason, even though their foolishness has been written about over and over and over and over and over. This is related to the increasing irrational hostility toward government in general — most people don’t like the idea of foreign aid, so they overestimate how much is spent on it.

It’s the sort of thing that makes you want to give up on democracy. On your bad days, anyway. At the least, it underlines the superiority of representative democracy over the direct kind.

Anyway, the story said the findings came from one of those Pew quizzes I like so much, so I immediately went and took this one. I got 11 out of 12 right, putting me ahead of 96 percent of those tested.

But… and here’s the really, really embarrassing thing… I missed the same question as the stupid one-third did. No, I didn’t say “foreign aid.” I gave a different wrong answer. I knew the right answer, and if I had just done it in a hurry, I’d have gotten a 100. But I thought, “I haven’t compared these things in awhile. Maybe this other thing has overtaken the one I think it is. Maybe this is a fargin’ trick question.” So I chose the other thing. But it was, of course, the first thing.

The irony is that if I had done what I have to do taking the weekly Slate News Quiz, I’d have gotten it right. That test is timed, and I hate that about that test. I also hate that it is deliberately about details in the news, rather than about whether you know overall what’s going on, and the relationships between different facts (which is what Pew tests).

Anyway, this being Friday, I went and took that one. And bombed. See the results below.

I would do better on that if it weren’t timed. I can usually see through the red herrings and at least intuit the right answer if I take a little time. But you’re penalized for taking time. So I do badly. Note that I completed the test in one minute, 47 seconds. Which for me is barely enough time to properly consider one question, much less 12.

And yet, I took too much time on the other test. Go figure.

slate quiz

Sheheen’s new education ad

This ad doesn’t strike me much one way or the other, but I thought I’d put it up to see what y’all thought…

Here’s the release that went with it:

NEW TV AD: “Futures” Contrasts Sheheen Vision for Education with Haley Record of Cuts
“A strong economy depends on great schools – and South Carolina deserves both.”
Camden, SC – Sheheen for South Carolina today released a new television ad contrasting Nikki Haley’s repeated vetoes of school funding and teacher pay raises with Sen. Sheheen’s long-standing record of support for public schools and plan to expand four-year-old kindergarten and increase teacher pay. The spot, “Futures,” is part of a substantial six-figure statewide TV buy beginning today.
“Nikki Haley’s veto pen has hit education harder than any other area, and she’s spent three years standing against pay raises for teachers while she increased her own staff’s pay — that’s not leadership we can trust,” said Andrew Whalen, Sheheen’s campaign manager.  “Vincent Sheheen has spent his career fighting for public schools, expanding four-year old kindergarten, and has worked across the aisle to achieve results. South Carolinians deserve honest leadership and accountability from a governor who understands that our children’s future and our economic well-being depends on great schools – that’s Vincent Sheheen.”

And below is supporting material (provided in the email I received, but for some reason not with the version on the website) for the assertions in the ad:

AD BACKUP:

Claim Backup
My mom was a teacher, and my sons go to the same public schools I did.
We know education builds futures.
Image of NH over shot of empty school hallway w headlines/quotes.CG: Nikki Haley

CG: Cut Over $100 Million From Schools

“SC governor’s veto pen has hit education hardest,” Adam Beam, The State, 6/27/2013Of the nearly 200 budget vetoes Gov. Nikki Haley has issued during her three years as governor, no government service has been struck more than public education.
A review of the governor’s budget vetoes shows the first-term Republican has vetoed $110 million worth of public education programs and services since 2011, vetoes that account for more than a quarter of the $419 million she has vetoed in state spending since 2011.
But Nikki Haley cut millions from our schools… “SC governor’s veto pen has hit education hardest,” Adam Beam, The State, 6/27/2013Of the nearly 200 budget vetoes Gov. Nikki Haley has issued during her three years as governor, no government service has been struck more than public education.
A review of the governor’s budget vetoes shows the first-term Republican has vetoed $110 million worth of public education programs and services since 2011, vetoes that account for more than a quarter of the $419 million she has vetoed in state spending since 2011.
Image of NH over shot of empty teacher desk w headlines/quotes.CG: Nikki Haley

CG: Raises for her staff

…and vetoed both teacher pay raises “Gov. Haley Vetoes $10 Million for Teacher Raises,” Robert Kittle, WSAV, 7/6/2012:Gov. Nikki Haley has vetoed 81 items from South Carolina’s budget, including $10 million for local school districts to give teachers raises.
and four year old kindergarten. “Haley, in veto, says early childhood nonprofit needs a closer look,” Jamie Self, The State, 6/12/2014:Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed a bill that supporters say would improve a nonprofit that distributes public money to private pre-kindergarten providers.

 

Image of NH over shot of empty school auditorium w headlines/quotes.CG: Nikki Haley

CG: Raises for her staff

“Gov. Haley sets premium staff pay,” Jim Davenport, Associated Press, 1/13/2011 

COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley will pay her chief of staff $125,000 per year, a salary that eclipses her own pay and is $27,000 more than former Gov. Mark Sanford paid his chief of staff, according to records obtained today by The Associated Press.

While giving her own staff twenty five percent raises. 

That’s not leadership we can trust.

“Gov. Haley sets premium staff pay,” Jim Davenport, Associated Press, 1/13/2011 

COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley will pay her chief of staff $125,000 per year, a salary that eclipses her own pay and is $27,000 more than former Gov. Mark Sanford paid his chief of staff, according to records obtained today by The Associated Press.

VS talking to elementary school kids / talking to teacher in busy school hallway.CG: Vincent Sheheen

CG: Restore School Funding / Raise Teacher Pay

As governor, I’ll restore school funding, and raise teacher pay.
Because a strong economy depends on great schools – and South Carolina deserves both.

Cindi Scoppe’s litany of the trouble Bobby Harrell is in

After crushing Bobby Harrell’s explanation that he just wrote down some wrong dates on his spending disclosures, Cindi Scoppe, in her column today, went into this litany of trouble the ex-speaker is in, even if you do swallow his “wrong date” defense:

If in fact he “did travel in his private airplane on a personal trip, transporting himself, family and friends to Florida for a high school baseball tournament” and then paid himself nearly $3,900 from his campaign account, as the indictment alleges, that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “used his campaign account to pay credit card debt and to pay for goods and services for his home, family and friends,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by … changing and altering the entries in his pilot log book,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by … creating schedules of flights in order to justify payments from his campaign account, when in fact some of the listed flights did not occur or were personal and not related to any official or campaign purpose,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by … misinforming law enforcement officers about the purposes and circumstances surrounding expenditures,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he “concealed this unlawful payment scheme by … misinforming the House Ethics Committee about the reason he reimbursed his campaign account,” that’s not careless reporting.

If in fact he did all that, I’m not sure why there weren’t more chareges. Much of that sounds a lot to me like obstruction of justice. Sort of like that ominous reference to his paying himself nearly $300,000 “in untaxed income” sounds a lot to me like state and federal income tax evasion…

Can Tom Ervin spend his way to viability?

Tom Ervin Releases First Campaign Ad as Candidate for Governor from The Post and Courier on Vimeo.

First, I’ve got to learn that his name is “Ervin,” not “Erwin.” I keep confusing him with Joe, the former state Democratic Party chair (and there hasn’t been one as good since).

Maybe his new media blitz can help me with that. (Although I’m dependent on press releases or news coverage of the ads to call them to my attention, since I seldom see these things on the boob tube. All that money spent to place them on broadcast outlets is lost on me. Fortunately for me, it’s impossible to stick them into old episodes of “The West Wing” on Netflix.)

Now I’ll get to the substance, and the question of the day: Will Mr. Ervin’s (just typed “Erwin” again, but caught myself) expenditure of $2 million on three TV ads through Labor Day make him a contender?

Or will it just make him more likely to pull votes from Nikki Haley, thereby putting Vincent Sheheen within reach of a win?

The later seems more credible to me, and it’s apparently what is causing the Sheheen campaign to be very careful not to do anything that might mess with this developing dynamic.

That’s his first ad above, the point of which is to say that Tom is a really nice guy. And also a guy who can afford to do something like this, which has got to be nice.

Here, by the way, is Ervin’s second ad, and his third one. He seems to be pretty good at sounding folksy. It’s a gift for a Southern pol to be able to sound genuine when saying “bidness”…

Sheheen’s plan for roads (first, no gas tax increase, which is a BAD thing…)

Vincent Sheheen has presented his plan for fixing roads in South Carolina, and right off the bat, he loses me by saying he wouldn’t do the most obvious thing that needs to be done — increase the gas tax in order to pay for it all.

Here’s his release:

Sheheen Releases Plan to Rebuild Roads & Bridges
Gubernatorial candidate lays out plan to responsibly invest in infrastructure and restore safety after years of neglect
Camden, SC. – Today, Sen. Vincent Sheheen released his plan of action to rebuild roads and bridges in South Carolina. The plan lays out a responsible course of action to improve safety and efficiency of the state’s infrastructure immediately and for the long term.
Sen. Sheheen’s plan centers around four key components that will increase accountability and lead the state to responsibly invest in infrastructure without having to raise the gas tax: adopt a Fix it First approach to focus on repairing roads before building new ones; reorganize the Department of Transportation to save money, improve accountability, and be more efficient in choosing what gets repaired; issue bonds for an immediate one-time infusion of money to get investments started and create jobs; each year, automatically dedicate five percent of the General Fund and surplus revenue to rebuilding our roads.
This plan of action comes after three years of total neglect to South Carolina’s roads and bridges by Nikki Haley that have left only 15 percent of South Carolina’s roads listed as “in good condition,” left thousands of bridges so unsafe that they are classified as “functionally obsolete,” and made the state’s rural roads the most dangerous in the country according to a new study. The Governor has refused to release a plan on roads until after November’s election.
View Sen. Sheheen’s plan to rebuild roads and bridges, as well as his other ideas for how to improve leadership and accountability in South Carolina, at www.vincentsheheen.com. His book, “The Right Way: Getting the Palmetto State Back on Track” includes an entire chapter on improving transportation infrastructure and is free and also available online, here.
Honest Leadership & Real Accountability to Rebuild SC Road & Bridges
Under Nikki Haley’s administration, South Carolina’s roads, bridges, rail lines, and waterways are in desperate need of repair after years of neglect.
South Carolina had the fifth highest rate of traffic fatalities in the country, according to the US Census. Our rural roads are the deadliest rural roads in the nation, according to a new report released this month. In fact, only 15 percent of our roads are classified as “in good condition” with thousands of our bridges so unsafe that they are classified as “functionally obsolete.”
South Carolina’s families, businesses and taxpayers in general deserve so much better from their government. South Carolina needs honest leadership and real accountability to responsibly fix the roads and bridges – we need a Governor who will make infrastructure a priority.
As a small business owner, and an attorney who has helped families and small businesses grow and succeed, Vincent understands that economic activity depends on a good and viable transportation system. Having reliable roads and bridges is vital to growing the economy from within and attracting companies from out of state. Similarly, as the father of three boys and a native South Carolinian, Vincent knows how imperative it is for families to have safe roads and bridges. Taxpaying citizens should not have to fear for their safety while driving down a road in their town or across a bridge in their community.  And we shouldn’t be embarrassed when visitors come to our state by our dreadful highways.
Adopt a “Fix It First” Approach
South Carolina has the nation’s fourth largest state-maintained transportation network. Additions place an increased burden on an already overburdened maintenance program. If we can’t afford to maintain roads we already have, how can we afford to build new ones? It’s time for honest leadership and a common-sense approach where we fix our roads first.
Vincent’s plan of action
  • Issue an executive order to require the Department of Transportation to adopt the Fix it First rule he has promoted in the Senate.
  • Appoint a Transportation Director to be accountable and use the limited resources to secure the safety of the existing roads.
  • Set benchmarks on Fix-It-First projects to tackle our most crumbling roads first. Hold the DOT accountable to those benchmarks and provide monthly updates on projects to improve transparency.
Transform how we pay to maintain our roads & bridges. 
Currently South Carolina is heavily reliant on the gas tax, which generates about $500 million per year and accounts for 71 percent of all state highway funding. But the gas tax is a declining source of revenue as cars become more fuel efficient. Increasing the gas tax is not going to solve our transportation funding crisis. To succeed, the state must diversify funding and weave together sources to responsibly invest over the long-term.  Because of historic underinvestment in our roads we need to create an additional dedicated funding source and issue bonds to jumpstart needed investments.
Vincent’s plan of action:
  • Issue bonds to fund long-term investment.
    • The use of infrastructure is enjoyed by generations of our citizens. Just like a family takes out a responsible mortgage to buy a house for their long-term success, bonding is a responsible way to invest over multiple years in the future that will help families and businesses alike. The use of bonds would allow the state to inject a tremendous one-time infusion of funds needed to bring our roads up to standards while using other sources of revenue to maintain their integrity.
  • Dedicate five percent of General Fund revenue for roads.
    • As a state, we must decide that road funding is such a priority to deserve a portion of general tax revenue — especially surplus revenue. As governor, Vincent would put forth a budget to phase in the automatic dedication of five percent of the General Fund and surplus revenue to Department of Transportation to repair our roads and bridges.
  • Investigate other sources of revenue.
    • Honest leadership means bringing people together and considering many new ideas while building a bipartisan coalition to move forward and deliver results. As Governor, Vincent will explore potential revenue sources to pay for the repair of roads and bridges, including:
      • Lease rest areas to private businesses to establish gas and food sales at rest stops and generate new revenue.
      • Investigate an out-of-state truck tax to gather funds from those out-of-state who use our roads but don’t pay anything to maintain them. This will generate funds and make South Carolina more competitive with other states’ approaches.
 
Make the Department of Transportation more accountable
People expect and deserve a government that works and works well – and when it doesn’t, they deserve real accountability. South Carolina can fund its priorities by cracking down on waste, mismanagement, and incompetence to put politics aside and focus on getting results.
Vincent’s plan of action: 
  • Restructure of the state Department of Transportation to make the director answer directly to the governor
  • Abolish the DOT Commission to allow the legislature and governor to manage and set road funding and policy and to increase accountability.
  • Increase oversight from the legislature so that with new leadership we could have real accountability.
  • Combine the State Infrastructure Bank with the Department of Transportation to provide a consolidated and accountable approach to road improvements and maintenance.
View this release online, here.

Yes, restructuring DOT — as we failed to do in 1993, and again in 2007 (because, in both cases, the General Assembly did not want to reform DOT) — is a great idea. It’s a no-brainer, something that should have been done long, long ago.

And I commend Sen. Sheheen for presenting a plan, instead of playing the game that Nikki Haley is playing — saying she’ll have a plan for us, but only after the election.

But if announcing your plan before the election means you feel compelled to avoid the most obvious way of paying for your proposal, then something important is lost.

Again, we have a way to pay for roadwork. It’s the gasoline tax. It has been held artificially, ridiculously low for far too long. There’s no need to run all over creation trying to find some other way to pay for infrastructure when we have a way to do it already. It’s a particularly bad idea to cut into funding available for all the other functions of government that don’t have a dedicated funding stream (“automatically dedicate five percent of the General Fund”), to pay for a governmental function that does have a dedicated funding stream — a common-sense one tied to use.

Another long and winding road to infrastructure funding

Several days ago now, Rep. Bakari Sellers responded to our discussion of funding for road construction and maintenance thusly:

I told him I’d take a look at it. Which I just now did. Here’s the summary of the bill:

TO AMEND SECTION 11-11-220, CODE OF LAWS OF SOUTH CAROLINA, 1976, RELATING TO THE CONTINGENCY RESERVE FUND, SO AS TO REESTABLISH THIS FUND AS THE SPECIAL PURPOSES REVENUE FUND (SPRF), TO PROVIDE THAT THERE MUST BE CREDITED TO SPRF ALL YEAR-END SURPLUS STATE GENERAL FUND REVENUES NOT OTHERWISE REQUIRED TO REPLENISH THE GENERAL RESERVE FUND, REVENUES DERIVED FROM ELIMINATING VARIOUS SALES TAX EXEMPTIONS AND SAVINGS ACHIEVED FROM THE IMPLEMENTATION OF STATE GOVERNMENT RESTRUCTURING, AND TO PROVIDE THAT SPRF REVENUES MUST BE APPROPRIATED OR USED AS REVENUE OFFSETS IN THE ANNUAL GENERAL APPROPRIATIONS ACT WITH ONE-THIRD EACH FOR ROAD MAINTENANCE AND CONSTRUCTION, A STATE INDIVIDUAL INCOME TAX CREDIT, AND FOR ADDITIONAL FUNDING FOR SCHOOL BASE STUDENT COSTS; AND TO AMEND SECTION 12-36-2120, RELATING TO SALES TAX EXEMPTIONS, SO AS TO DELETE EXEMPTIONS CURRENTLY ALLOWED FOR TECHNICAL EQUIPMENT SOLD TO TELEVISION AND RADIO STATIONS AND CABLE TELEVISION SYSTEMS, MOTION PICTURE FILM SOLD OR RENTED TO MOVIE THEATERS, SOUTH CAROLINA EDUCATION LOTTERY TICKETS, THE EXEMPT PORTION OF PORTABLE TOILET RENTAL PROCEEDS, AND AMUSEMENT PARK RIDES INSTALLED IN QUALIFIED AMUSEMENT AND THEME PARKS.

You can read the whole bill here.

My immediate reaction is that this is yet another instance of going the long way around to accomplish something, instead of just going ahead an raising our absurdly low gasoline tax, which after all, is intended for this very purpose.

But at least Mr. Sellers will tell you what his plan is. Which is more than some will do…