S.C. agencies suggest budget cuts

COLUMBIA -- State agencies could cut hundreds of jobs, reduce or eliminate programs to maintain clean water or treat autism and shutter weekend office hours at the DMV, according to suggested agency budget cuts submitted this week.

The cuts are necessary after state economists said Wednesday that revenues would fall $554 million short of estimates for the budget year that began July 1. Lawmakers said they would return to Columbia later this month to balance the budget.

The agency lists are not final, and any budget cuts would need legislative approval.

Gov. Mark Sanford asked agencies to identify their lowest-priority projects -- 10 percent total -- as a guideline for lawmakers. While lawmakers have said they do not expect to cut agencies the full 10 percent, House Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, said the budget hole is equivalent to eliminating the entire budgets of 21 agencies.

Roughly $150 million is available from state reserve accounts.

Cooper said he would start meeting with budget subcommittee chairmen to try to work out an agreement. Lawmakers have tentatively planned to return to Columbia the week of Oct. 20, he said.

"If I can't get an agreement from them," Cooper said of his committee, "there's no point bringing the entire House in."

Making things more difficult, Cooper said, is the desire of Sanford and others to spare education, Medicaid programs and prisons -- an agency already expecting a budget deficit.

• The Department of Motor Vehicles would eliminate 77 jobs and weekend office hours if cut 10 percent. The departments of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Health and Environmental Control, Disabilities and Special Needs and many other agencies said they might have to lay off workers.

• Unfilled state jobs would be eliminated at many state agencies.

• Health and Human Services has reduced Medicaid payments for delivering babies, treating patients and other services. Additional cuts would limit the number of children who could enroll in a state health insurance program.

• Autism treatment for 300 children would be eliminated, as would an additional family support program.

• Some colleges, universities and technical colleges said they would raise tuition.

Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman Jim Beasley said the cuts have the potential to significantly impact programs, but that the agency has used its best judgment to try to continue to protect residents and the environment. Among the suggested cuts at DHEC are programs to maintain clear air and water.

Marcella Ridley is the mother of an autistic child who helped push the expanded autism treatment. Though the $3 million programs are expensive, she said, they save money by helping autistic children learn to take care of themselves.

"The success stories are all over the state," Ridley said of the early-childhood program. "Children who had no language are now using words. They are potty trained. They are making their own sandwiches."

Eventually, she said, they will attend school without assistance, graduate from high school and be productive in society.

The cost of not treating an autistic child, she said, is between $5 million and $7 million over their lifetime.

The possibility of eliminating the program is "heartbreaking," she said.

Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the governor's staff would review the list and likely rank the cuts according to priority.

Sanford wants lawmakers to balance the budget before the Nov. 4 elections.