S.C. House approves $7.2B spending plan

COLUMBIA -- The S.C. House approved a $7.2 billion state spending plan Wednesday night that includes across-the-board cuts for most state agencies, but also adds money for AIDS drugs, health care for poor children and K-12 education.

With state revenues essentially flat, lawmakers faced a difficult task in balancing the budget. To do so, they used more than $200 million from agency savings and other reserves. In addition, most state agencies will have to trim 2.5 percent, while state employees will receive only a 1 percent raise for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"Hopefully, this downturn won't last that long," said Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, "And the (savings) will help us. There is a substantial amount of money left in (savings) for next year."

Gov. Mark Sanford praised the House for adopting some of his budget suggestions, such as cutting travel, but said the House paid for too many programs with one-time money and did not do enough to reduce spending.

With so little money to spread around, this week's debate was quicker than last year's, when lawmakers had to debate what to do with a more than $1 billion surplus. With the exception of some short disputes, the budget is largely unchanged from what the Ways and Means committee approved two weeks ago.

The House rejected a proposal that would have created a committee to review the statue of former Gov. Ben Tillman on the Statehouse grounds. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said the nine-member committee would review the statue and its historical markers. Rutherford hoped to remove the statue of the former governor, who was a member of a group that lynched blacks in the 1870s.

The House will reconvene at 10 a.m. today to give the budget a third and final reading, a vote that is considered a formality.

The Senate now must approve a spending plan and send it to Sanford, who has the authority to veto parts of the budget he doesn't like.

Child-care dollars cut

Plans to dump 882 children living with parents in shelters or foster homes from a day-care program received no scrutiny in the spending bill.

The state Department of Social Services slashed its request for additional money from $10 million to $4 million, said state Rep. Tracy Edge, who handles the Department of Social Services budget.

About half that spending reduction came out of a program that provides nearly 22,000 child-care vouchers for women on welfare programs and parents living below the poverty level, including foster parents and women living in shelters who earn less than 65 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $930 monthly for a family of three.

Last year, budget writers expanded the program by adding 1,600 vouchers at a cost $5.2 million. The budget being debated now calls for that to fall by $3 million beginning in July, cutting out 882 vouchers, said Virginia Williamson, the agency's lawyer.

DSS will try to help the women affected and hopes some of the cuts can be absorbed by people leaving the program, Williamson said.