Good news for college students, state prisons and conservationists
COLUMBIA -- Gov. Mark Sanford released a $5.8 billion state budget Friday that finds more money for K-12 classrooms and health care -- funds squeezed out by laying off some state workers, requiring the rest to take unpaid leave and cutting state college budgets.
State schools would see a slight bump in funding, but the state Department of Education would be forced to lay off 94 employees, or 20 percent of its administrative staff. The plan would close three two-year University of South Carolina campuses in Allendale, Lancaster and Union counties.
Meanwhile, state workers would be required to take two unpaid holidays.
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Sanford's budget balances new spending with $278 million in savings and cuts. The plan would spend about $100 million more than the current budget, which has been slashed by $1 billion since July. Sanford's budget for the year beginning July 1 is roughly equal to state spending in 2005-2006.
To meet those savings, lawmakers would need to merge state agencies with similar missions, consolidate small school districts and require colleges and technical schools to share administration. Sanford has pushed for the changes for years but lawmakers have rejected the idea.
But facing tough choices last year, lawmakers set aside their differences with Sanford and adopted a number of his recommendations. Sanford hopes they will do the same this year.
"This is, by far, the toughest budget that we've had to produce," Sanford said.
"The silver cloud is that maybe it's this kind of budget year that forces the consolidations and restructurings that we've talked about for some years."
State prisons, college students and conservationists received good news in the budget.
Sanford's plan would eliminate an expected $45 million budget deficit at state prisons, heading off the need to release state prisoners from their sentences early.
He also redirected $5 million in Hollywood tax incentives to be used to purchase and preserve land by the State Conservation Bank -- an agency whose budget was eliminated this year.
The spending plan also adds $5 million for need-based college scholarships.
It adds $137 million for the Department of Health and Human Services, an agency that has eliminated prescription drug coverage, hospice care and other services because of this year's budget cuts.
Agency spokesman Jeff Stensland said while the funding would prevent further cuts to service, it would not restore lost programs.
But in a year when the state expects to collect less money than it did last year, any new spending comes at the expense of another agency's budget.
The state Department of Education would be required to lay off 94 workers, totaling $6.8 million.
Agency spokesman Jim Foster said that of the agency's more than 900 employees, about half are mechanics for the state's 5,000 buses. To reach $6.8 million, Foster said, the agency would have to lay off 20 percent of its administrative staff. The agency already has eliminated an equivalent amount of jobs this year, Foster said.
State colleges are among those hardest hit, with Sanford proposing to close USC's Lancaster, Salkehatchie and Union campuses. Those two-year schools, he said, are within driving distance of other schools. In addition, Sanford slashed college marketing and public-relations budgets.
The plan would save $21 million by requiring state technical colleges to consolidate their administration into three geographic regions. Tech schools in the Upstate, the Midlands and the Lowcountry would be run by one administration in each region.
State agencies would be encouraged not to rehire workers who had finished their five-year contracts in the Teacher and Employee Retirement Initiative, or TERI. Under Sanford's budget, state retirees would receive no increase to their pensions and would have to pay more for health insurance.
House Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, said his staff is studying Sanford's recommendations as they struggle to find a way to balance a shrinking state budget. The problem, Cooper said, is finding a majority of lawmakers willing to agree on cuts.
"While it may be the right thing to do," Cooper said of closing USC campuses, "I don't know if the Legislature will go along."
Cooper disagreed with spending money to conserve land and said the House likely would not direct job cuts, but instead would allow agencies to best implement their budgets.
A look at Gov. Mark Sanford's $5.8 billion state spending plan and its effect in key areas.
• Education: Spends more on K-12 classrooms, but would require the state Department of Education to fire employees and eliminate open positions. Colleges and tech schools would be forced to merge their administrations.
• Public safety: Would eliminate a deficit at the Department of Corrections. Budget would eliminate expanded public-defender program for DUI and domestic-violence cases.
• Health care: Would maintain current state-funded health care services. Doctor visits would be limited and patients would have to pay a fee for all services, prescription drugs and equipment.
• Taxes: Sanford would eliminate the corporate income tax by removing various tax breaks. He would raise the state cigarette tax by 30 cents a pack to pay for an optional, lower income tax rate.
• The environment: Sanford sets aside $5 million to purchase and conserve land. Plan would eliminate "Certified South Carolina Grown" advertising and a state-funded 4-H programs.
Next week marks the beginning of the legislative session.
Tuesday, lawmakers will return to Columbia to open the 118th legislative session.
State of the State
On Wednesday, Gov. Mark Sanford will deliver his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly. Sanford moved his speech up so it would not conflict with the presidential inauguration Jan. 20.
The General Assembly will not convene the week of Jan. 19. President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in Jan. 20, and many lawmakers will be in Washington for the inaugural festivities. Both the House and Senate will designate that week a furlough week, where lawmakers don't work and forgo a week's pay to help deal with budget cuts.
S.C. lawmakers set to return