COLUMBIA, S.C.–For someone who battles big government all day long, Mark Sanford is incredibly relaxed. After locking horns with lawmakers, the Palmetto State’s Republican governor spent a recent evening sipping a Bud Light and chatting in a Polo shirt and khakis. As befits this 44-year-old who runs and swims daily, the Dave Matthews Band plays quietly on his sound system.
”We’ve saved 50 percent on headcount at the Governor’s Mansion and 45 percent on operating expenses,” Sanford says. Despite insisting that public frugality begin at home for him and South Carolina’s First Family, Sanford and his staff know how to make their guests comfortable.
“We’re like ducks in a pond,” says Andy Marchant, the ante bellum mansion’s executive chef, after serving southwestern Caesar salad and swordfish. “Above the water, it’s calm and serene. Down below, we’re paddling furiously.”
Unlike so many Republican governors today, Sanford and his team take limited government seriously. While New York’s George Pataki outspends Mario Cuomo, his liberal Democrat predecessor, and Nevada’s Kenny Guinn initiates a 5 to 10 percent live-entertainment tax, Sanford promotes the Reaganite, market-friendly principles that distinguished him as a self-limited, three-term U.S. congressman. Sanford aggressively advocated Social Security choice and earned Straight As and the “Taxpayers’ Best Friend” honor from the National Taxpayers Union.
Sanford complains that “South Carolina’s cost of government is 130 percent of the national average” but crows about successfully restructuring state services and saving taxpayer dollars:
”We made the Department of Motor Vehicles part of the Cabinet,” Sanford says. It’s now “directly accountable to the governor rather than its own island of government. If it’s not working, people tell me.” With closer oversight and by offering Internet transactions instead of office visits, average DMV waiting times have fallen from 90 minutes to 15. Letting auto dealers issue new license plates also has helped cut DMV’s budget 17 percent.
”One state agency rents vehicles to other agencies,” Sanford marvels. “If you just went to Hertz, you could rent for less.” The legislature agreed to save $33.78 million by selling 6,000 of the state’s 20,000 cars.
Sanford’s latest budget increased spending by just 1 percent, compared to the Republican legislature’s 6.6 percent proposed hike.
Atop $53 million in assorted tax relief he secured this year, Sanford’s $1 billion income-tax cut would slash rates from 7 to 4.75 percent (a 32-percent reduction). The Republican house passed it before Democrats filibustered it in the GOP Senate.
Facing a $155 million deficit this year, Sanford negotiated with legislators and won $139 million in debt repayment. Some allies urged Sanford to declare victory with 90 percent of a loaf. He refused, seeing any deficit as both unconstitutional and a precedent for future deficits. Like being three days pregnant, a splash of red ink is no big deal today. Over time, though, both likely grow into far more urgent situations.
Sanford issued 106 vetoes to close this $16 million gap. The house quickly overrode 105 vetoes. Sanford responded May 27 by walking into the statehouse rotunda with a squealing piglet under each arm. “Wait a minute,” he asked in the Charleston Post and Courier. “There is plenty of money for ‘pork’ projects for individual members’ districts, but no way to carve out any savings to pay off the deficit?”
While many legislators and pundits frowned, talk radio hosts loved it. Letters to local newspapers mainly approved. Despite–or perhaps because of–this, Sanford’s approval numbers exceed 70 percent.
“Mark Sanford truly gets it,” says Ed McMullen, President of Columbia’s free-market South Carolina Policy Council. “He understands that limited government is an objective. He has succeeded in changing the debate.”
“His plan to reduce marginal income tax rates by close to one third is one of the most aggressive income tax cut plans in the nation,” says Stephen Slivinski, budget-studies director at Washington’s libertarian Cato Institute. “Based on that alone, he deserves recognition as one of the best governors in the nation.”
With the legislature adjourned, Sanford will spend 2004 building grassroots support for his program and asking voters to elect sympathetic lawmakers. Free-marketeers seeking someone to carry Ronald Reagan’s banner in 2008 should keep their eyes on Columbia.