COLUMBIA — The top budget writer in the state House of Representatives has set his sights on rising college tuition.
House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said when lawmakers return to Columbia in January, they will be looking at a variety of options to rein in what he said was excessive spending by the state's colleges and universities, including a possible cap on tuition increases.
It's getting out of control,'' White said.
Previous budget cycles have focused on fixing the state's troubled retirement system, which faces a multi-billion-dollar shortfall, and whether to expand the state's health insurance program for the poor and disabled under the controversial Affordable Care Act.
But, beginning in January, White said this year's state budget will focus on what he says are the runaway costs of higher education.
It's drilling down into higher ed, figuring out why it is costing so much for children in the state of South Carolina to go to school. Are we getting a return on our investment?'' White said. You get out of college with debt of upwards of $50,000, and you go find you a job making $30,000 to $35,000. ... They've got a lot of debt. That is going to translate into, I can't buy a house', I can't buy a car.' Those are the things that keep the economy going.''
South Carolina's 12 four-year public colleges charge an average annual tuition of $9,899, or 39 percent more than the national average, according to U.S. Department of Education data. College officials blame the state Legislature, saying cuts in state funding for higher education 40 percent since 2002 have left them no option but to raise tuition.
But White is not buying that correlation.
I get a little upset whenever your higher ed folks talk about how, (Lawmakers) reduced our funding.' Everybody's funding has been reduced. But you have raised tuition to make up for a lot of that,'' White said. Others don't have the ability to do it. (Colleges) haven't slowed down.
Walk around Columbia. Walk around any college town. Where are the cranes? They are around college campuses.''
South Carolina's 12 public colleges, plus various support agencies including the Commission on Higher Education, have asked state lawmakers for more than $772 million in additional spending in the 2014-15 state budget that starts July 1. Of that, $596.4 million would come from the state's general fund money from income and sales taxes. Most of that requested money, $549.9 million would go for one-time expenses, including buildings.
The largest such request came from the University of South Carolina, which asked for $125 million to renovate the Carolina Coliseum.
State lawmakers have capped college tuition before, once in 2002 through a budget proviso and again in 2009 through a threatened moratorium on all building projects at schools that raised their fees beyond a certain percentage.
But Julie Carullo, deputy director for the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, said tuition caps have not worked.
We share (Rep. White's) concerns about affordability of higher education and making sure we have an affordable, efficient system,'' Carullo said.
The commission has asked lawmakers for $9 million so it can allocate it to public colleges and universities that come up with practical innovations that will allow students to earn an associate's or bachelor's degree at less expense.''
And some colleges and universities already are planning cost-cutting programs.
For example, Clemson University is asking for $1.5 million for its Focus on Student Success'' program, which helps students graduate on time and avoid costly extra semesters.
Winthrop University also has asked for $60,000 to help students at the less expensive, two-year York Technical College transfer to Winthrop to complete a four-year degree.
The requests from colleges and universities are part of the more than $2 billion in total requests from all state agencies, the first step in the months-long budget process that begins in earnest in January.
It's unclear how much money lawmakers will have to spend in the budget year that begins July 1.
But early estimates from state economists project the state will have an extra $200 million in state income and sales taxes available to spend meaning lawmakers will have to make some tough choices.
Competing against the higher education requests are requests for:
• $1.4 million for four new state judges two in Family Court and two in Circuit Court. S.C. Supreme Court chief Justice Jean Toal, who is facing a tough legislative re-election contest against Associate Justice Costa Pleicones, requested the added money as the court system's top administrator.
• $10 million to put toward the purchase of a new statewide electronic-voting system.
• $155 million in new spending for the state's Medicaid program, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled.
• $17 million for the Department of Commerce's closing fund,'' money it uses to lure companies to South Carolina with incentives including infrastructure improvements.
Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said he agreed with White that higher education spending needs to be looked at and evaluated.''
But Leatherman said he did not favor a cap on tuition increases, arguing tuition increases have come under control'' since he convinced the State Budget and Control Board to delay any new construction projects for colleges that raise tuition too much.
It's working,'' he said. They understand that the General Assembly is not going to sit still and allow what was taking place back then.''