By Tom Davis || Each year individuals and political advocacy groups in South Carolina publish legislative scorecards identifying state lawmakers who are “taxpayer heroes,” but the reality is that, with only a few exceptions, those earned grades are not really the consequence of lawmakers exhibiting any particular political courage. Occasionally, however, they do put themselves at great personal risk (in a conventional political sense) by standing up against the status quo in order to earn a true victory for the taxpayer. And such was the case last week with SC Sen. Kevin Bryant and SC Sen. Shane Martin.
First, some background. Everyone acknowledges it is important to dredge the Charleston harbor from its current depth of 45 feet to 50 to accommodate the next generation of larger commercial ships. The port in Charleston has rightly been called South Carolina’s most important economic engine, the means by which our manufacturers export their goods to the world, and so the deepening is a must. The cost is estimated to be $300 million, with the state-federal split being 60/40, meaning that South Carolina is responsible for $180 million of the dredging cost and the feds the remaining $120 million.
The problem, however, is that our federal government is in dire financial straits – fast closing in on $17 trillion in national debt, and with no end in sight to the upward spiral – and shipping companies and others engaged in international maritime commerce now demand assurances from ports as to their ability to handle the business if the federal funds don’t materialize. As a practical matter, in the case of the Charleston port project, that means demonstrating South Carolina is ready, willing and able to pay the entire $300 million dredging cost itself if such becomes necessary.
To that end, the S.C. House of Representatives appropriated $180 million for the port deepening. The S.C. Senate Finance Committee did that one better – it appropriated the $180 million in state funds, and also approved a new bond bill raising the state’s debt ceiling by $120 million so that the state could borrow money to cover the federal government’s share of the dredging cost. And it is in connection with that bond bill that Sens. Bryant and Martin exhibited political courage and ended up getting a huge win for state taxpayers.
This year, the state legislature is poised to spend $1.1 billion more in revenues than last year. This is more than a 10 percent increase – and comes at a time when most private household income levels are flat-lining. And so Sen. Bryant, as a member of the finance committee, asked a logical question: Since the state has $1.1 billion in additional revenues to spend this year, why not allocate $120 million of that surplus toward the cost of the port deepening, rather than borrowing it? Paying for that crucial capital expense would be a far better use of that money, Sen. Bryant argued, than using it to further grow state government.
When the members of the finance committee disagreed and approved raising the state’s debt ceiling by $120 million, Sen. Bryant
responded by placing a minority report on the bill, blocking it from being debated on the floor of the SC Senate. And in the following days Sen. Bryant, along with Sen. Martin who stood right by his side, was put under intense political pressure to release his hold on the bill. Rarely have I seen state senators subjected to such pressure. They eventually allowed the bond bill to come up for a vote, but not before a $20 million reduction in the state’s long-term debt for retirees’ health insurance was put into the budget.
Sens. Bryant and Martin proved themselves to be true taxpayer heroes. Despite unprecedented pressure, they didn’t relent until the $20 million debt reduction was guaranteed – a debt reduction that otherwise absolutely, positively would not have occurred. If more state lawmakers had their courage, South Carolina would become the most fiscally conservative state in the union and, as other profligate states like California, Illinois and New York slid into insolvency and chaos, be the primary destination for individuals and companies looking to prosper in a truly business-friendly environment.
Tom Davis represents Beaufort County in the South Carolina Senate.