House members to debate $5.6 billion proposal
COLUMBIA -- Federal stimulus money in South Carolina's proposed budget plan will continue programs that fill prescriptions for HIV patients and seniors, provide free cancer screenings and fund construction of wheelchair ramps, agency officials said Friday.
The $5.6 billion budget approved late Thursday by the House Ways and Means Committee used federal money to restore much of what was cut since July from public schools, colleges and health care for the poor and disabled. The debate moves to the House floor.
The money gets people off waiting lists and prevents more service cuts, according to officials in the state's health agencies.
"This is not what we'd like to have, but it's the best we can do in the circumstances. We're not planning to raise taxes," said House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont. As for the stimulus money, he said, "It's kinda hard not to take it. All the taxpayers in this state will have to help pay it back."
The plan includes $1 million for an HIV prevention program that pays for 39 church-based education initiatives, and $2.4 million for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which fills prescriptions for uninsured residents who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Bambi Gaddist, executive director of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council, said she was "deeply concerned" the money would be eliminated.
"We're elated about their incorporation," she said. "We've got to have $2.4 million just to keep a lid on the epidemic. You want them to be well, working and contributing to the economy, not sick and dependent on Medicaid."
Some programs scaled back during the budget cuts, but restored in the 2009-2010 plan, include breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screenings; and intensive, early intervention with mentally disabled children. The plan restores programs cut completely, such as summer camp for disabled students.
End-of-life care for poor hospice patients too young to qualify for Medicare -- a program that had been threatened for elimination -- continues next year.
The stimulus gives South Carolina $700 million to repair the budgets of public schools and colleges. The House spending proposal designates half of that, and sets aside the rest for 2010-2011, Cooper said.
Higher education has been cut by $170 million since July, as K-12 education was hit with $334 million in cuts.
First step in budget process
School and college officials say it's still too early to tell exactly how the numbers will affect the classroom and campus.
The budget proposal comes close to restoring the K-12 cuts when including other stimulus money specifically for high-poverty schools and disabled students, though it's unclear how that money will be distributed, said John Cooley, budget director for the state Education Department.
Clemson University is slated to receive $17.6 million of the stimulus, which helps make up a $25 million cut. But the school's public service budget, which pays for a range of services from meat inspections to agriculture research in offices across the state, is ineligible for the federal money. It received another $240,000 cut, for a total drop of $10.4 million since last summer, said Clemson lobbyist Angie Leidinger.
"This is the first step of what will be a long budget process," she said.
Medical University of South Carolina president Ray Greenberg said he's extremely grateful for the federal cash infusion.
State money to the Charleston campus has fallen about $23 million since July. The proposal calls for restoring $15 million of that with stimulus money. As the state's largest provider of Medicaid services, MUSC also expects money through the federal government's increase in Medicaid spending, though how much is unclear. And it expects research grant money through an infusion to the National Institutes of Health, which funds half of MUSC's research, Greenberg said.
"It's been a happy week. ... The stimulus bill's the best thing that's happened to us in quite some time, both in the health care side and education side," he said. "It may not completely offset cuts, but it helps us approach next year much more optimistically."