South Carolina's state budget could be headed for a train wreck if House and Senate conferees can't come together on a property tax relief plan.
House Majority Leader Jimmy Merrill (pictured above w/ Rep. Shirley Hinson) dropped the first hint of a possible government shutdown in a press release issued last week from the House GOP Caucus.
Buried midway through the otherwise vanilla news release, Merrill said, "There are a number of Caucus members more than willing to go home without a budget to accomplish property tax relief."
"'Dems fightin' words," as we like to say down here in the nation's poorest-educated state.
Of course, when you think about it, "going home without a budget" might be the best thing that ever happened to South Carolina considering the General Assembly we've currently got at the wheel.
Given both chambers' inability to control their addiction to new spending, the taxpayers of this state are currently looking at the largest two-year increase in the growth of government since 1998-99, right before the bottom fell out of the American economy and future Assemblies were forced to raid trust and reserve funds, enact massive mid-year budget cuts, deny state employee raises for three consecutive years and run an unconstitutional $155 million deficit.
Did the Legislature learn anything during this latest boom-to-bust cycle?
Of course not.
Politically-speaking, however, threatening a shutdown is a risky move to make.
First, Senators aren't up for reelection this year, but House members are. Voters who don't want to take the time sifting through the blame game are likely to take their aggression out on the first available scapegoats at the ballot box.
Second, a shutdown would play right into the hands of Gov. Mark Sanford, who would have a field day decrying the status quo's selfishness at the expense of hard-working taxpayers and state employees. This General Assembly has already run circles of inactivity around less-than-industrious Legislatures past, and a budget shutdown would only solidify the already marketable "do-nothing" moniker.
Third, it is highly unlikely a shutdown threat will bring Senators to anywhere close to where the House wants them to be on property tax relief. The two different plans are miles apart, and neither does anything to address what will likely be the big issues on the campaign trail - broader, job-creating structural reform to the tax code and slowing government growth to a more reasonable level.
Finally, shutdowns are almost always blamed on those who initiate them, as evidenced by the 1995 government shutdown at the federal level that backfired completely on Republicans and simultaneously established Bill Clinton as a political force to be reckoned with. The momentum of the previous year's "Contract with America," already flailing at that point due to sell-outs in the Republican leadership, forever evaporated and paved the way for Clinton's convincing 1996 re-election victory.
All of these realities point to the House conferees likely having to swallow some form of compromise on the property tax issue, the extent of which will determine the extent of the body blow dealt to the leadership of Bobby Harrell, who made the property tax-sales tax swap his raison d'etre shortly after taking the reins from former Speaker David Wilkins.
Look for cooler heads to prevail at the State House over the next few weeks and for a shutdown to be avoided, but the fact that one has even been publicly discussed as an option should illustrate the high stakes and contentiousness of the upcoming debate.