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Killing Tillman – Part Three: Our State Budget

Note: This is the last installment in a series of short articles about Ben Tillman’s imprint on South Carolina.

The South Carolina House will debate Tillman’s legacy this week. No, the debate will not be about renaming Tillman Hall at Clemson University. Instead, we will debate the state budget and we will stumble over Tillman every time we consider a revenue transfer to local government, a proviso for a special purpose district or consider $500 million worth of capital improvement bonds for local projects.

Most people today remember Tillman as a rabid segregationist and for good reason. After leaving the Governor’s mansion for the US Senate, Tillman pushed for a constitutional convention in 1895 to reshape South Carolina’s government into one deliberately removed from the people.

The resulting constitution codified a miserable and life threatening existence for our black citizens. An existence that forced many to flee North and left those remaining at the bottom of a very narrow class system. His artificial and petty control of life’s daily interactions between white and black South Carolinians suppressed the remaining vestiges of manners left over from the ante-bellum days. Though much altered, his constitution remains in effect to this day.

Beyond controlling the daily activities of black citizens, Tillman’s constitution was designed to defeat any populist uprising by ordinary South Carolinians, regardless of color. He established these barriers by drastically weakening the authority of our counties and our Governor.

The General Assembly, not the people, became the authority to control the trickle of power and money down to local government. Tillman limited the power of counties to tax and narrowly defined what services they could provide. His limitations led to the existence of special purpose districts, controlled by the state, that tax and spend on their own. These special purpose districts add another layer of illogical complexity to local government.

Tillman’s constitution also limited the power of the Governor by requiring each of the Governor’s cabinet members to be elected separately. A new Governor could be given a mandate to change the direction of the state through a landslide victory, but this mandate might not extend to the other cabinet members. Even in recent memory, we have seen a Governor and Superintendent of Education elected at the same time from different political parties.

Seventy-five years passed before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 overturned the segregation laws enabled by Tillman’s constitution. During those 75 years, blood was shed and lives were lost to bring about those changes. Over 50 years have passed since codified segregation ended and we are still paying the price for Tillman’s prejudices. We should have tossed out his constitution years ago, yet we continue on with his system of government whose core remains an all-powerful General Assembly whose leaders remain even further removed from the majority of the citizenry.

South Carolina competes in a 21st century global economy with a 19th century state government structure chained to our ankles. Last year we elected our Governor to a second term with 56% of the vote. She received a clear mandate to continue her pro-economic growth policies, including improving our roads, yet has no power other than her veto to deliver her vision of South Carolina.

Just this past week, the SC House passed a compromise bill adjusting the formulas used in the Local Government Fund to redistribute local revenue to local governments. These formulas were last adjusted 24 years ago. The current adjustment was required because the formulas left a deficit owed to local government each year that state government refused to pay. In effect, the compromise bill put into law that the state really does not owe the counties or municipalities the accumulated funds that have not been paid. Or so we think.

Last week The Greenville News reported that Act 388 has accumulated an $866 million shortfall since 2007. It was a tax swap that raised sales tax revenue and lowered property tax revenue used to support local school districts. Unlike the local government fund, the state has been dutifully paying this bailout to the school districts each year. Yet again, a formula miscalculation has resulted in an almost billion dollar opportunity cost.

Both of these miscalculations trace their ancestry to Tillman’s belief that local government cannot be trusted – or more to the point – our citizens cannot be trusted to elect effective local officials. Maybe South Carolina should issue a special dollar to be used in these bailouts. It could have Tillman’s picture on the front and a shackled citizenry on the back.

As the House debates the budget this week, take a good look at the process. Think about how few members of the General Assembly actually control the amounts that we debate then dole out. Consider the blinding speed in which the $500 million bonding portion of the budget was revealed and debated in committee. Ask yourself what projects were left off.

Think on these things if you are tired of the inertia, backwardness and lack of problem solving ability that we find today in the General Assembly. The inertia exists by design. That design may have been just the thing to suppress our citizenry in 1900, but it drastically hurts opportunity for all of us in 2015.