State awaits $200 million shot in arm

Expected federal stimulus money should eliminate some proposed, painful budget cuts

joconnor@thestate.comMarch 12, 2010 

The S.C. House will not have to tighten the belt on state spending quite so much when legislators begin debating the budget next week.

Congress is poised to approve $200 million more in state aid, which would reverse some proposed cuts in the $5.1 billion budget plan. And state revenues - which have been in free fall for two years - are stabilizing.

Wednesday, the U.S. Senate approved a six-month extension for stimulus-related state health care money. House lawmakers said Thursday they plan to use the roughly $200 million to restore cuts that could have eliminated services for 26,000 of the state's disabled, cut access to state-funded health care for children in low-income families and restricted the number of prescription drugs for Medicaid patients.

"I think we've got everything fixed for this budget," said Rep. Tracy Edge, R-Horry, chairman of the House health care budget subcommittee.

The health care cuts have motivated advocates, since the Ways and Means Committee approved the budget two weeks ago, to fill the State House lobby, push lawmakers to restore funding for the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs and call and e-mailing lawmakers.

None of the decisions was pleasant, Edge said. The House plan would limit Medicaid patients to three prescriptions, down from a possible 10 now. A state-funded children's health care program would limit access to families earning 150 percent of the federal poverty line - $33,075 for a family of four - down from the current limit of $44,100 for a family of four.

While it is unclear when the state will receive the federal money, said Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson, the state's congressional delegation believes it is only a matter of time. The U.S. House must still approve the U.S. Senate version of the bill.

House Minority Leader Harry Ott chided House Republicans for criticizing federal spending, particularly the stimulus, and then rushing to patch the state budget before the new federal money arrives.

"Do they want the money or do they not want the money?" Ott asked. "It seems to be a case of saying one thing and doing another." Ott, D-Calhoun, thinks the House could restore most of the proposed health care cuts.

The House also got some good news from the Board of Economic Advisors, which said state revenues are meeting expectations. The board decided against further cuts.

House lawmakers had worried economists could cut revenues, forcing the House to rewrite the budget before Monday's 1 p.m. session in which it will begin budget debates. Last year, House lawmakers stayed late in the night on a Wednesday and approved the budget before a pending BEA cut on a Thursday afternoon.

But economists warned that if the state collects just $20 million less than expected - four-tenths of a percent of the $5.1 billion total - the board will have to cut further. Revenues have fallen from $7.3 billion since July 2008.

"A bad March and we're in the tank," said BEA chairman John Rainey.

Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.

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