State House Update for Week of March 3-5, 2009

The House of Representatives met three days this past week. The House will debate the budget starting on Monday, March 9. The Ways and Means Committee submitted its budget proposal to the full House on Tuesday. Since that time leading up to this coming week’s budget debate, discussion centered on the federal stimulus package; potential across the board cuts to state agencies; possible tax increases; the aid to local governments fund; and the impact on state government of even more decreased funding to prisons, law enforcement, education, and other services. Again, as stated in this column last week, it is important for the public to know that 70 percent of our state general fund budget is money that goes to K-12 education; higher education; and Medicaid. The other 30 percent goes to the rest of the state agencies. If we take the federal stimulus money for education and Medicaid, we still will not have a balanced budget and those areas – education and Medicaid – are not subject to cuts under the rules attached to the stimulus money. Therefore, if we take the stimulus money for education and Medicaid, then we have to find places in the other 30% to cut to balance the budget. The House budget writers estimate that those cuts will have to equal $122 Million for a balanced budget. Without such cuts, the only alternative is to raise taxes which the majority of the House does not want to do. On the other hand, if we do not take the federal stimulus money for education and Medicaid, we will have to cut close to another $400 Million from the budget on top of the $122 Million. If we go that route, then there will be substantial effects including at least another 4,000 teachers laid off; 5 prisons closed; and 3,500 prisoners released early into the general population. Remember that even before additional cuts, the state is facing a revenue shortfall of over $1 Billion. I am optimistic that we will find a way to balance the budget without raising taxes simply to meet General Fund requirements. Please let me know your thoughts on this issue if you would like by email at or phone at 649-0000 early this week.

A brief note on the federal stimulus money: South Carolina is supposed to receive $8 Billion in stimulus money over two years. About ninety-five (95%) percent of that money is being sent by the Federal Government directly to cities, counties, and school districts with no state legislative oversight. The other 5% over two years — approximately $350 Million this year — is “State Fiscal Stabilization” money. This is the only money that the legislature has any say over and it is going to education and Medicaid as stated in the previous paragraph. We as taxpayers in South Carolina will be paying it back whether we accept it or not. Hence, the House of Representatives plans to use this “stabilization money” in the budget this year. Even including this money, the House budget this year will be about 20% less than last year due to the well documented revenue shortfall. As stated in this column two weeks ago, this shortfall demonstrates that our tax structure must be overhauled to provide more stable sources of revenue for critical economic foundations such as education, workforce quality, infrastructure, and research and development.

On the House floor, we passed a bill allowing the aid to local governments fund to be cut if necessary as part of balancing the budget. Public discussion about this potential cut over the past 10 days has been widespread. This bill – H.3581 – had to pass for the aid to local governments fund to be cut just like all other portions of the state budget. The House budget writers proposed a $122 Million cut to local governments receiving these funds. This would mean a return to mid 1990s state funding for local governments. I will not support a cut of that amount. I have worked long hours during the past two weeks finding a way to keep the cuts to this fund as low as possible. I have been in regular contact with Mayor Cavanaugh; County Administrator Clay Killian; and Councilman Gary Bunker. Additionally, I plan to work this week to ensure that this fund is kept at least at 2005/2006 levels (a $50 Million cut instead of $122 Million) like other areas of state government and to provide flexibility to local governments over their state appropriated funds as those governments also deal with the current fiscal crisis.

Among other bills debated this week included a bill up for final passage soon which eliminates tax money being used to pay for signs naming roads, bridges, and overpasses in honor of anyone except for military personnel, law enforcement, and firemen killed in the line of duty. Private funds – not taxpayer dollars — could still be used for naming in honor of someone who does not fall into one of these categories.

On Tuesday, I filed a bill as primary sponsor to require that students without a high school diploma who drop out of school lose their driver’s license. The bill provides that a student can keep the license even if dropping out if the student meets certain hardship requirements such as needing to go to work to support himself or his family. The bill further provides that students who bring alcohol to school; who bring illegal drugs to school; or who assault a teacher at school will lose their driver’s license. At the time of filing, the bill had 45 cosponsors.

During the week, several people visited from our District including the third graders at Millbrook Elementary School. I met with them and showed them the House floor. I had a great time visiting with the students. We also were visited on Wednesday by members of the Aiken Disability and Special Needs Board including Ralph Courtney, Lea Freaman, Addie Jones, Keisha Williams, LaDavia Wright, Earline Frasier, and Vicky Doggett. Their trip to Columbia is much appreciated as Wednesday was Disabilities and Special Needs Day in South Carolina.

Several constituents called or emailed me during the week regarding pending legislation and matters in the district including the Graniteville/Vaucluse water system; funding for K-12 education; Hitchcock Woods storm water runoff and erosion in Sand River; and funding for state and local governments. I appreciate all of the insight from folks in our district.

Thank you for the opportunity to represent and to serve you.

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