That’s one way to look at it. Describing anything as big and complex as the state budget in a way that is comprehensible demands a certain blind-men-and-the-elephant approach: You stake out a perspective and describe in those terms.
Here’s another way to look at it: You’ll recall that, last spring, I wrote about just how deeply public higher education in South Carolina had already been cut. A sample from that piece, which was inspired by what I’d heard at a budget hearing over at the State House:
- 17 percent – the amount of the University of South Carolina’s funding that now comes from state appropriations. Our state’s major research universities now get less than a fifth of their funding from state appropriations. In recent years, those in the know have stopped calling them “state institutions” and started calling them “state-assisted.” We’ve now reached the point at which even that seems like an overstatement.
- 1st – South Carolina’s ranking in percentage of higher education funding cut last year. South Carolina, before the December and March reductions, had cut 17.7 percent from higher education budgets. (After those cuts, it has slashed higher ed budgets 24 percent.) The second worst state was Alabama, at 10.5 percent.
- 38th – Our state’s ranking for higher ed funding before the past year’s nation-leading cuts.
- 1995 – The last year that state appropriations, as a dollar amount, equaled the current level, before adjusting for inflation.
- 1973 – The year that matches the current level of funding, once you adjust for inflation. (Think for a moment what North Carolina and Georgia have done in higher education since 1973, pulling light years ahead of South Carolina.)
- $29 million – The value of one grant (from the National Institutes of Health) brought in by a single one of the 13 endowed chair holders at the Medical University of South Carolina.
- 25 – New technology companies started by USC faculty in the years since the endowed chairs program started, which places the university 19th among public institutions in the nation in number of start-ups.
- 50,000 – S.C. jobs provided directly or indirectly by USC.
- 11 percent – South Carolina unemployment rate in February.
- 43rd – South Carolina’s national ranking for percentage of adult population with college educations.
Since then, of course, higher ed has received some stimulus money that our governor did everything but lie down in the road to prevent coming to our state. But that has generally gone to one-time needs — deferred maintenance and such, or one time programs. The institution I’m most familiar with, USC, was very particular about not devoting that temporary boost to recurring needs. So basically, the things that were hurting before the stimulus are still hurting.
Since I wrote those bullets above, there have been further cuts to recurring funding, bringing that nation-leading 24 percent above to 32 percent.
Now I hear USC is bracing for another 21 percent in cuts, which would bring the cuts since July 2008 to 46 percent.
Remember that before any of the cuts came, higher ed was already seriously underfunded in this state, which is one of the reasons why our economy lagged behind those of North Carolina and Georgia even in good times. Our governor doesn’t believe public colleges and universities should concern themselves with economic development, but people who actually know something about economic development understand that the connection is inevitable, no matter what administrators and governors choose to concern themselves with. Any state where higher ed is neglected can look for little economic growth today.
We started out behind the rest of the country, and then had cut our investment in higher ed more than any other state had when we had cut 24 percent. At 46 percent, how much farther behind will we fall? Those figures, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for our short-term happiness) are not available yet.
Now, whether we’re talking about higher ed, or corrections, or K-12 education, or mental health, or environmental protection or whatever, it’s understandable that a certain amount of belt-tightening will occur in hard times. No one has to tell me, after a year of unemployment, about the necessity of changing one’s expectations and adjusting spending.
But as we go into our, what, third or fourth year in a row of cuts upon cuts, it would be really nifty if someone in state government would assure us that there is truly a rhyme and reason, a strategy, behind our actions, one arising from a vision that extends beyond the current crisis. I’d like to hear how we’re going to rethink taxing and spending to make sure we fund essential services in a way that positions our state to be ready to take advantage of the economic recovery when it comes, instead of lying prostrate in the ruins — which, unfortunately, seems to be the general outlook at this point.