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The South Carolina Bleak House

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. – Charles Dickens from A Tale of Two Cities 

The English department of my high school that I attended in the early 1980’s was big on Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House and Great Expectations formed the core of their British literature curriculum. Being saturated with his works at an impressionable age may explain my dour and conservative disposition or it could just be my Blue Ridge upbringing.  If you are a reader then you will understand how flashes of fiction can illuminate the reality that is before you (and the importance of maintaining a strong literature requirement for high school students). The above quote came to mind as I drove to the Statehouse last week to vote on a possible budget and to finish out the session.

We had started 2020 with such great expectations. The House passed a budget in March based on a projected increase in recurring revenue of $1 billion and non-recurring revenue of $900 million. Our economy was strong and we were benefitting from being one of the top five states that families were moving into from across the country. It was the best of times. 

Then came COVID-19 and the budget passed by the House in March was put on hold in the Senate along with plans to increase teacher salaries, fix rural roads, improve state prisons and cut income taxes. Revenue projections plummeted. We were called back into session in June where the House and Senate agreed, in a rare act of spending prudence, to pass a resolution to continue funding government at 2019-2020 levels. We wanted to make sure that our state’s economic advisors could be certain on new revenue projections. We seemed to have learned from our mistakes during the 2009-2010 budget crisis when we had to cut state spending by 25%.

Or maybe not. 

The latest revenue projections warned us of a reduction in recurring revenue to $86 million reflecting the impact of COVID-19 on our economy – still positive numbers but definitely a horrible trend. Based on the downward projections and the continuing uncertainty of where our economy may go by the end of the year, Gov. McMaster asked the House and Senate to maintain the 2019-2020 budget levels until the new session in January. The House agreed. We adopted a policy of prudence now before austerity later.

However, as quick as Oliver Twist could say “Please, sir, I want some more” the Senate amended the original House budget this month to include the vastly reduced revenue projection and sent it back to the House for us to consider when we arrived last week. Clearly, they had forgotten the worst of times from the Great Recession. In their now tedious role as the Artful Dodger, the Senate budget attempted to hoodwink the public while picking the taxpayer’s pocket of future revenue funds. The Senate budget now molders away in the House Ways & Means committee until the new session starts in January wherein it will die.

This week brought better success with the passage of a couple of broadband bills that will build the foundation to expand broadband into the most rural parts of South Carolina and legislation to bring uniformity to the business licensing process. However, for those who had great expectations of an expansion of gun rights will have to wait another year as the House manifestation of the Artful Dodger singlehandedly picked the guns right out of the pockets of churchgoers seeking to protect their fellow congregants. The legislation that almost was would have changed the law to allow citizens who attend a church who holds weekend services in a public school building to carry a permitted concealed weapon where otherwise it would be prohibited. With an ill-timed amendment and against all advice, the Artful Dodger forced the House to adjourn debate on the bill.

I have learned through hard experience never to underestimate the deathly power of a well-timed motion or amendment. The antics surrounding the gun rights bill reminded me of another Artful Dodger who picked the pockets of school choice supporters several years ago with a well-timed motion to table the only viable school choice bill in recent memory. And yes, both of these Dickensian characters were Republicans.

The General Assembly’s two-year session formally ended today. Next January, the whole legislative process starts over assuming that we are not called back by the Governor for an emergency session before then.