by Jack Hunter
Gov. Mark Sanford's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal:
"A recent report by the American Legislative Exchange Council ranked us 47th worst in the nation for annual debt service as a percentage of tax revenue. Our state dedicates nearly 11% of its annual tax revenue to paying debt. On top of that, South Carolina has another $20 billion in unfunded, long-term political promises for pensions and other liabilities. The state budget has already been cut four times in recent months as the national economic downturn has impacted South Carolina and driven down tax revenue.
President Barack Obama recently signed a "stimulus" bill that will spend about $2 billion through "programmatic means" in South Carolina. In other words, the federal government will put this money directly into existing funding formulas and programs such as Medicaid. But there is an additional $700 million that I as governor have influence over, and it is the disposition of this money that has drawn the national spotlight to South Carolina.
Here's the background: Before the stimulus bill passed, I asked for states not to be bailed out. After it was signed into law, I said that a state bailout would create more problems than it solved, and that we shouldn't spend money we don't have. That debate was lost, so I looked for a reasonable middle ground. I asked the president for his support in using the $700 million to pay down state debt.
If we're going to spend money we don't have at the federal level, it becomes all the more important that our state balance sheet is in good order -- particularly if this is a protracted downturn. But many people do not realize that the stimulus money runs out in 24 months -- at which point South Carolina will be forced to find a new source of funding to sustain the new level of spending, or to make sharp cuts. Sure, I could kick the can down the road; in two years, I'll be safely out of office. But it would be irresponsible.
If South Carolina could use stimulus money to pay down debt, in two years we will be able to spend, cut taxes or invest even if the federal government can no longer provide more money -- not a remote possibility. In fact, paying debt related to education would free up over $162 million in debt service in the first two years and save roughly $125 million in interest payments over the next 13 years -- just as paying off a family's mortgage early frees up money for other uses.
When you're in a hole, the first order of business is stop digging. South Carolina is in a hole, and it's not a shallow one.
The fact remains that while we'd all like to spend unlimited dollars on the very real needs that exist in our state, we must spend in the context of what is sustainable."