The budget is a moral document

Dr. Holley Ulbrich

Senior Scholar, Strom Thurmond Institute

A budget is a moral document. It expresses our values and our priorities as South Carolinians. It reminds us that each of us, four million plus South Carolinians, has needs to be met and gifts to offer the world.

One of our most deeply held American values is justice. We try to do that work of justice and compassion as individuals and through congregations and other private organizations. But the task is enormous. These scattered and individual efforts are not enough. Fifteen percent of South Carolinians lives in poverty—the 9th highest rate in the country.

Our underfunded schools are failing to develop our children’s talents and prepare them to become self-supporting, contributing members of society. We are not taking on those reciprocal responsibilities to one another as fellow citizens of South Carolina. The budget is an expression of our obligations to one another, and at present our budget demonstrates a lack of commitment, a failure to pay more than lip service to our shared values.

To treat everyone justly and fairly, we need to provide them with both freedom and opportunity. Freedom is not just freedom to, it is also freedom from. The four freedoms—freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear—are all essential to human flourishing. Our children will not have that freedom and opportunity without providing them an adequate education for a demanding 21st century economy.

Those who cannot earn enough on their own—the disabled, the sick, the elderly, the children in single-parent homes where working mothers can’t earn enough to meet their needs—do not have freedom from want and fear, or opportunity to escape from poverty. Prisoners who are overcrowded and lack access to exercise and education have little or no opportunity to re-enter society as productive human beings leading meaningful lives.

The failure to maintain the state’s infrastructure, especially transportation infrastructure, will make it increasingly difficult to attract and retain business firms to provide employment opportunities for our workers, who still suffer from one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Yet our state General Fund spending per person, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was 10 years ago-$1,156,compared to $1,229 in the 1999-2000 budget. The 2010 budget per person was at the 1984 level in constant dollars. We are asking our teachers, our prisons, our colleges and universities, our health services and public safety officers to do more with less, and do it with 21st century technology.

Is there another way? Yes.

The budget is a moral document not only on the spending side, which displays our priorities for all to see, but also on the revenue side. How much are we able and willing to contribute to meeting the needs of our fellow citizens? By any measure, our state and local tax system has failed to reflect our shared values of justice, of freedom, of compassion, and of opportunity. Instead, we have focused on tax cuts and failed to update our antiquated revenue system, standing idly by while our tax base continues to erode.

Taxes are low in South Carolina, and getting lower. South Carolina ranks 47th out of 51 states (including the District of Columbia) in taxes as a percent of income and 51st in taxes per capita. Yet low taxes have not succeeded in the supposed goal of attracting and retaining industry, because business firms care about more than taxes. Business location studies show that firms care about an educated work force, an adequate transportation system, a consumer market that can afford to buy their products and services, and quality of life for the firm’s employees.

South Carolina’s sales tax system is eroding rapidly. One factor in that erosion is tax cuts over the last 10 years. Changes in the income tax that allow unincorporated business to file at the same 5% rate as corporations and eliminate the bottom bracket (which affects all taxpayers) on the individual income tax have cost the state more than $200 million a year. State-funded property tax relief has been a major drain on the state’s revenue.

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