Thursday, January 20, 2011

Nikki Haley's State of the State: from bad to worse?

Last night South Carolina's newly-inaugurated Governor Nikki Haley delivered her first State of the State address to the assembled houses of the state legislature, and to the people of the state. The backdrop for this speech of course is the looming $829 million shortfall in the state's budget; so this address provided Gov. Haley her first opportunity to give some indication of specifics in how she plans to grapple with this budgetary crisis. Nearly the entire first half of the speech was given over to some general expressions of optimism in facing challenges, pledges of openness and transparency in governance and promises to work constructively with the legislature (trying to set herself apart in style at least from her predecessor Mark Sanford), and standard boilerplate pro-business and shrink-government rhetoric, complete with the obligatory Ronald Reagan quote. This part of the speech was capped off with another burst of optimism:

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.

Then, finally, it appeared the Governor was ready to lay out some specifics. What would be the very first proposals (with dollar amounts attached) uttered from the Governor's lips, this chief executive willing to "make the tough decisions"? Well, we were told that the Department for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services was being moved "from a privately leased space to offices sitting empty in a government-owned building," and that would save $700,000. Over four years. Uh, okay, Governor, that's nice but...we're still waiting, what's the first thing on your mind for bringing our budget under control? OK, here it comes:

We will not please everyone with the decisions we make but we must make decisions that do the least amount of harm and have the best long-term effect. And the reality is the role of South Carolina’s government in the year 2011 can no longer be to fund an Arts Commission that costs us $2.5 million. It cannot be one that funds ETV, costing taxpayers $9.5 million.

And with that, along with the balance of her speech (which essentially punted most hard decisions down the road and/or to the legislature), Nikki Haley gave us a pretty clear indication that "making the tough decisions" to her means picking off the least powerful constituencies in crunching the budget numbers, which have a tiny impact on the overall budget picture yet will hoodwink her more credulous Tea Party followers into thinking she is actually doing something serious about government spending. By putting the Arts Commission and ETV at the head of her "to-do list" (together amounting to one-and-a-half-percent of the budget deficit), the Governor brings into question her seriousness about the whole enterprise, the relatively-inexperienced politician's depth of understanding about the state, and her grasp of plain old common sense, as in: slashing a giant agency's budget by 30% may cause great pain and hardship, but dialing a small agency's budget down to zero means you had better think long and hard about the disappearance of that aspect of your state's existence. As I write this on the morning of the 50th anniversary of JFK's inaugural, let's just say that Nikki Haley's speech last night could be called "Profiles in Courage--Not."

I would call Gov. Haley's proposal to end funding for the Arts Commission penny-wise-but-pound-foolish, except it's not even penny-wise when you are talking about such a small amount! And what the state gets for this tiny investment! The SCAC has helped bring the arts, an essential part of the human experience, to South Carolinians for over 40 years, including to those who live in rural locations, to those of modest means, who would otherwise have little access. Far from being some kind of sinecure for so-called "elitist" arts, the SCAC is heavily involved in preservation and promotion of folk arts, traditional arts, which are so central to South Carolina's history and culture. A glance at the list of recent grantees will give you a sense of how broadly the Commission impacts the cultural vitality of this state. (Full disclosure: I received an Artist Fellowship from the Arts Commission in 2008). 
And the same goes of course for ETV. Destroying these aspects of our state's life gains so little relative to our budget woes; yet it would immeasurably desiccate the depth of experience, the quality of existence available to our state's citizens, who are enriched by these agencies' works regardless of whether they live in a larger city or rural area, whether they are rich or poor. SCAC and ETV make South Carolina a better place to live, which also means a better place for people to choose to relocate to, a better place for companies to choose to operate in.

The good news is that, apparently (I've only read Haley's speech, did not hear it) her proposals to end state funding for SCAC and ETV were met with significant groans from legislators, indicating there is still substantial support for these agencies (and understanding of how much bang-for-the-buck they deliver for South Carolina) among the Legislature. (You may recall it was just 8 months ago that the Legislature had to override Mark Sanford's veto of funding for SCAC). In the days ahead, I'll link to methods for contacting your legislator to express your support for these embattled agencies. In the meantime, if you would like to express your support of the Arts Commission and ETV to Governor Haley directly, this page shows you how to do so via either snail mail, fax, or e-mail.

The issue cuts across (or should, anyway) party lines. As Rep. James Harrison, Republican from Richland County, put it at the time of the last veto override to preserve SCAC funding: "The arts is one of those quality-of-life issues. Even in these tough economic times, there's a place for arts in our budget."

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