S.C. schools, Medicaid will take it with state's budget cuts

COLUMBIA -- Education and health care, which make up roughly two-thirds of the state budget, will bear the brunt of the 7 percent across-the-board cuts announced Thursday. Earlier cuts tried to spare public schools and health care at the expense of state colleges and others.

Most state agencies said Thursday they do not know how they will implement the cuts or which services might be affected.

School class sizes are likely to increase, and low-income or disabled residents might not receive the same medical coverage, among other reductions.

Agencies could not say if they were planning to lay off state workers. About 100 state workers already have been laid off, according to state data, and dozens of temporary, contract or retired employees have been let go.

Thursday's cut means schools across the state will need to eliminate $364 million from their budgets. Department of Education spokesman Jim Foster said that number almost equals the $402 million cut between 2001 and 2005, the last time state revenues declined.

"It's too big," he said of Thursday's reduction. "There's really no way to protect them."

Schools, Foster said, might not be able to fill vacant teacher positions. During the last downturn, many districts lived off their savings, Foster said, but he did not know if districts had replenished those funds.

The Department of Health and Human Services said it has few options.

"There will be reductions in services and the number of people receiving Medicaid," said agency spokesman Jeff Stensland. "There will be significant program changes."

When lawmakers approved cuts in October, they also forbid HHS from reducing the amount they pay hospitals, nursing homes and others for services. Stensland said that gives the agency fewer options to deal with cuts.

Thursday's cuts mean the agency will lose $61 million plus an additional $398 million in federal matching money.

Bill Byers, director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said the agency risks federal takeover if it cuts its budget too much. Byers said the agency might have to ask to run a deficit, as Corrections has done this year.

Some state agencies said they had planned for additional cuts.

Department of Commerce spokeswoman Kara Borie said the agency has been floating open positions, might not spend some marketing money and has consolidated its offices to two floors from three floors in its downtown Columbia office space.

At the Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency's budget is mostly staff. To prevent layoffs, workers volunteered for unpaid leave. Director Brandolyn Pinkston did not expect any other cuts would be needed.