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McConnell: We have to make the tough choices

Courtesy: The State Newspaper
By: Glenn McConnell

With the state Department of Health and Human Services warning that it may end all payments to doctors, hospitals and other health-care providers in March if it isn’t allowed to run a deficit, a lot of people seem to be getting carried away by emotion and forgetting some basic principles about government.

Rather than focusing on how the lack of funds may impact the delivery of services for those South Carolinians who rely on Medicaid, we should be talking about how we got to this point — and what we need to do as a state to address federal mandates and our limited resources.

I was frankly upset when Director Emma Forkner informed me that she was running out of money and simply assumed that the agency would run a deficit. Nor was I happy to learn that an accounting maneuver was used to move a several hundred million dollar deficit from one year to the next.

Agencies need to balance their books and make the hard choices to live within their means. I believe that is what the state constitution requires, and I believe that is what the taxpayers expect of them.

I am not convinced nor do I believe that S.C. taxpayers should accept the argument that we are powerless to act differently and must spend beyond our means because of federal requirements. If the federal money is not enough to cover the expense of any program, it is not enough, and therefore, the program must stop. Agencies simply cannot pretend that the money is never ending and continue to spend, incurring a deficit to pay the next year. The obligation of executive branch agencies, as I see it, under the constitution, is first and foremost to the taxpayers of this state and not to bureaucrats in Washington. The 30 pieces of silver that our state received in the form of federal stimulus dollars should not be enough for us to disregard either our constitution or our oaths of office.

The question is, what do we do now? The easy but irresponsible thing would be to remain silent and allow Health and Human Services to run a deficit in the current fiscal year. We then would not face denying services on which people rely. But that is not right. Doing right is not easy, but it is what must be done. We are not an administration of comfort, but rather a government of laws. It may be hard to say no, but that is what our oath of office requires when there is no money. The state may have agreed to accept federal money and to expand eligibility, but not at the cost of the balanced budget requirement. When those dollars are gone, so are the services.

It may be a good lesson for our leaders and bureaucrats in Washington to know that when more people are added to the rolls and the program money runs out early, it will be those in dire need of governmental assistance who will be severely hurt. This is not the time for state officials to back away from requiring balanced budgets and no deficits. This is the time for us to stand up for constitutional government rather than administration by comfort. This is the time for our federal government to imitate the fiscal responsibility of the states rather than for the states to imitate the reckless spending of the federal government.

The question is no longer what we want to do, but what we can afford to do. We cannot legally or morally continue to fund programs that we cannot afford. Government must be like any business or family. When the money is gone, so is the ability to do what you want.

We also need to realize that every dollar that is overspent somewhere in state government is one less dollar to spend somewhere else or to return to taxpayers. If Health and Human Services, or any state agency, runs a deficit this year and we have to pay it back next year, then we have that much less to give to education for our children, to our publically funded institutions of higher education and to law enforcement.

We must adhere to the requirement for a balanced budget.

Let’s tell Washington we can spend no more than what is appropriated by elected representatives and what we can afford. Let’s stand up for our constitution and tell these federal bureaucrats that it is a usurpation of state sovereignty to require us to spend beyond what was appropriated and matched.

Mr. McConnell, a Charleston businessman and lawyer, chairs the Judiciary Committee and serves as president pro tempore of the state Senate.