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.