COLUMBIA -- A South Carolina House budget panel has approved a draft budget that pumps $1 billion in federal aid into education, colleges and health care, but cuts back most other state budgets to 2004 levels.
The budget largely restores cuts made to K-12, state colleges and universities, and health care made over the last year a prerequisite to be eligible for federal stimulus money.
To do so, lawmakers tapped $122 million in state funding for county and local governments. That means local governments will not receive as much state aid as they did last year, a cut of $1.2 million in Richland County alone. This year Richland County received $19.7 million from the state.
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House budget writers struggled all week with how to deal with sagging state revenues and the requirements of the federal funding. House Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, dubbed the final compromise "plan Z."
To prevent cutting local government funding and potential local tax increases, a handful of lawmakers supported raising the state's cigarette tax to 41 cents a pack to help balance the budget. The House Ways and Means committee voted the idea down.
Lawmakers admit the federal money is a temporary fix for the state budget woes, but one that will stave off roughly $700 million in state budget cuts for the next two years.
Democrats urged Republicans to reconsider some of the cuts in sales, property and income taxes approved over the past few years, and promised to have that debate on the floor of the House.
"We need to make some hard decisions and look at sacred cows," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. "You aren't going to ram it down the throat of local government without some of us saying 'hold up.'"
Jobs and services at the county level are likely in jeopardy with such a cut in state support.
In the current economy, counties will be left with no other way to replace the lost revenue, said Richland County administrator Milton Pope especially since legislators have granted counties such limited abilities to tax.
"You're looking at cutting local government services, especially in the amount that they're talking about," Pope said.
Higher education is the biggest winner in the House spending plan, which erases double-digit cuts enacted throughout the fall. The University of South Carolina is set to receive an additional $28.6 million in each of the next two years, while Clemson University will receive $17 million.
Winthrop University gets $3.7 million a year.
The budget also restores a number of health care programs cut over the past year, including meal deliveries for seniors, help building handicapped ramps and a prescription drug assistance program.