Gov. Nikki Haley laid out an optimistic path under daunting circumstances in her first State of the State address.
The nearly $1 billion budget shortfall South Carolina faces offers an opportunity to restructure state government and recast its role in our lives, Haley said. Certainly, business as usual is not an option.
The first question to answer, she said: "What is the role of our government?
"It is time that we restore to the people of South Carolina a government that both knows and performs its intended role," Haley said.
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But defining that role, even in a state as politically homogenous as South Carolina, won't be easy. Hammering out a common vision for the people of South Carolina will take leadership that reaches beyond the bounds of the Statehouse and the Republican Party. Haley won her office with 51 percent of the vote. She must take into account the other 49 percent as she moves ahead.
To that end, we applaud her call for citizen participation in the process and her call for lawmakers to listen to the people.
"Don't get complacent," Haley told the people of South Carolina. "Don't complain about those things that bother you, continue to do something about them. Stay involved in your government. Let your will be known so that those of us you have sent to Columbia might follow it."
To lawmakers, she said, "They want us to remember that we work for them. They don't want to watch in-fighting with no real results. They want to feel our successes in their wallets and regain confidence in the role government plays in our state. Let's give that to the public this year. They deserve to know what it's like to feel good about their government."
As for state spending, Haley warns us this year will hurt. We must be prepared for cuts that might seem "unfair or even callous." The process must start at zero and we must ask, "What do we have to have?"
That seems right, but it also seems at odds with her immediate call to cut state spending completely for the Arts Commission and S.C. ETV, with a combined total of less than $12 million. Let's first have the debate and have it in the context of the whole budget.
That context also must include tax reform. How did we go from creating a special study group -- with the charge of laying out the road to a more equitable, sustainable tax system -- to silence on its work in our new governor's first major address?
Haley did mention the state's education funding formula, saying, "We need to educate our children not based on where they happen to be born and raised, but on the fact that they deserve a good, quality education, and they are our future workforce." She also pointed out that it represents 40 percent of the state's budget.
But that's just one segment of state spending, and it, too, must be dealt with as part of a larger debate on taxation. A tax system as piecemeal and special-interest laden as ours must change if we're truly to shake up the way we do business, and if we're to avoid the ups and downs of a system too dependent on the sales tax. We can't make the kind of long-term decisions Haley calls for under so volatile a tax system.
The Taxation Realignment Commission's recommendations include reducing the sales tax rate but broadening the scope of what is subject to the tax. That includes closing about 60 of the more than 80 sales tax exemptions and caps.
Lawmakers and the governor have a lot on their plates, but restructuring state government and rethinking its mission and budget must include how we pay for it all, as much as the total amount spent.
Haley promises an open door and an open ear to good ideas. She challenges lawmakers to redefine the way they do business.
"With commitment from the public, creativity from our cabinet heads, courage from our legislature, and a chief executive willing to lead the charge and make the tough decisions, there is no limit to where we can take South Carolina," she said.
That's a promise we hope Haley, lawmakers and the people of South Carolina can keep.