South Carolina is getting on the right track when it comes to fiscal responsibility. In 2022, state lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster enacted the first-ever state personal income tax cuts, letting residents keep more of their hard-earned money and making South Carolina more competitive for business. Last year, voters also approved ballot measures requiring the state government to set more money aside in the event of an economic downturn. The next step is to get state spending under control, which can be achieved by following the Policy Council’s South Carolina Sustainable Budget (SCSB).
The SCSB provides a limit for annual general funds appropriations using data based on the rate of state population growth plus inflation. This report provides appropriations recommendations for fiscal year (FY) 2024 and compares recent state appropriations with what spending would have looked like under a sustainable budget.
Based on population and inflation data in 2022, the recommended general funds appropriations limit for South Carolina’s FY24 budget is $11.2 billion.
However, with inflation reaching a 40-year high, primarily because of the errant policies in D.C., this spending ceiling is higher than it would otherwise be under normal economic circumstances. Accordingly, the S.C. Legislature should consider freezing spending at the current FY23 budget amount of $10.34 billion. This would help to correct recent overspending seen in South Carolina’s budget and put our state on a more sustainable path. At a minimum, general fund appropriations in the FY24 budget must remain below $11.2 billion.
A sustainable budget, sometimes called a conservative or a responsible budget, is a model for state budgeting that limits appropriations based on population growth plus inflation. This metric serves as an indicator of what the average taxpayer can afford to pay for government provisions. In particular, it accounts for: 1) More people in the state who could potentially pay taxes, 2) Wage growth that’s typically tied to inflation over time to pay taxes, and 3) Economies of scale, as not every new person or wage increase should be associated with new government spending.
The SC Sustainable Budget does not make specific recommendations on how general funds should be appropriated. Rather, it gives legislators the flexibility to appropriate taxpayer dollars to government programs as determined by the General Assembly while ensuring that spending growth remains in line with what people can afford.
Such a voluntary spending limit is key to putting South Carolina in a position for further tax relief. In 2022, lawmakers cut and simplified our state personal income taxes – a policy supported by the Policy Council – and set up a trigger for additional, smaller cuts in the future. But smart budgeting will help accelerate the process of reducing income taxes and fuel other tax cuts. Unsustainable spending, on the other hand, could build pressure to reverse course and raise taxes, leaving South Carolinians with fewer opportunities to flourish.
SC Appropriations vs. Sustainable Budget
Figure 1 compares the previous eleven years of South Carolina’s general fund appropriations (FY13 to FY23) to general fund appropriations if limited to the rate of population growth plus inflation, with the following results:
Key takeaways (see Table 2):
Follow the sustainable budget
As legislators begin working on South Carolina’s next budget, we strongly encourage them to follow the SCSB, which establishes a spending limit based on what the average state taxpayer can afford to pay for government services. The SCSB does not instruct lawmakers how to spend funds, rather its purpose is to keep overall spending from rising too quickly.
Such budgetary restraint will be vital going forward. In its November 2022 report, the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors forecasted $12.3 billion in general fund revenue for FY24, with expected revenue for FY23 being $12.5 billion – a 1.3% decline. Moreover, the FY23 revenue estimate is 8.7% less than actual revenues of $13.7 billion for FY22. If these estimates materialize, it will mark an end to years of major growth in state revenue collections.
The good news is that South Carolina is already taking steps to prepare for a rainy day. Voters recently approved two amendments to increase contributions to the state reserve funds – raising the General Reserve Fund from 5% to 7% and the Capital Reserve Fund from 2% to 3% of the previous year’s general fund revenue. By law, the reserve funds act primarily as a shield against year-end budget deficits.
By doubling down on smart policy and following the SCSB, our state will be in a much stronger position to cut taxes, avoid the tremendous cost of unchecked government growth, and allow citizens to prosper and reach their fullest potential.
Originally posted by South Carolina Policy Council.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.