State leaders propose $488M in education cuts

State lawmakers agreed Friday to a draft plan to cut $488 million from the state budget with smaller cuts to K-12 education coming at the expense of state colleges and other agencies.

The budget also likely would correct expected deficits at state prisons and for purchasing school bus fuel.

Budget writers in one week rewrote a $6.6 billion spending plan they typically spend months preparing. Those cuts, for the budget that began July 1, were required after state economists cut revenue estimates earlier this month.

Lawmakers will begin voting on the budget plan next week. Both the House and Senate must pass it, and Gov. Mark Sanford must sign it.

The budget gives agencies broad authority to implement the cuts, and many agencies said Friday they do not yet know the impact. House Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, said he did not know if or how many state workers might be laid off. Lawmakers also allowed agency heads to require employees to take unpaid furloughs.

"I don't think it's a fun job, but it was certainly necessary," said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley and House majority leader. "We got a little bit of what everybody wanted."

Merrill said that lawmakers tried to target cuts to areas of greatest need, and that critical programs, such as children's health insurance, were protected specifically.

"We always talk about letting the locals and those closest to the people determine what's effective," he said.

The governor has pressured lawmakers to target their cuts. Sanford said Friday he felt that lawmakers had listened.

"We're pleased that, at first glance, the House and Senate seem to have heeded our calls for real and targeted budget cuts," Sanford said.

Sanford said lawmakers did include some of his vetoes, but ignored others such as suspending new security measures at the Statehouse.

The budget cuts $88.5 million from K-12 education, but that 3.6 percent cut is among the smallest. Lawmakers also tapped one-time sources to find nearly $20 million to purchase fuel for school buses.

Harder hit are state colleges and universities, most of whose budgets were slashed by at least 14 percent, for a total of $126.6 million.

Health-care programs also were cut, though not as deeply as other agencies.

Lawmakers cut the Department of Health and Human Services by $76.7 million, but allowed the agency to use reserve funds to keep programs running.

One winner in the budget debate was the Department of Corrections, which expected to run a $23.7 million deficit this year. The new budget sets aside more than $8 million from a state grants program to help close the deficit.