COLUMBIA, SC — Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell calls it the great tsunami.
The population of South Carolina residents 60 and older grew by 40 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census. By 2030, that population is expected to increase by 67 percent to more than 1.5 million people, according to a population estimate from the S.C. Office of Research and Statistics.
S.C. policymakers expect the growing numbers of seniors to strain the states health care and transportation systems, not to mention the state budget. In response, the Silver Haired Legislature the legislatively-sanctioned body that advises S.C. lawmakers on aging issues is preparing for the 2014 legislative session with a host of recommendations that are getting some traction with lawmakers.
McConnell, who for years was arguably the states most powerful lawmaker when he was president pro-tempore of the Senate, is using his clout to push the issue to the forefront. He already has convinced lawmakers to boost the Lt. Governors Office on Aging budget by millions of dollars, and this year he convinced powerful state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, chairman of the Senate Finance Health and Human Services subcommittee to lead the states Joint Aging Committee.
I see those as being priority issues for us, Alexander said. I think weve got a moral and religious responsibility to try to take care of their needs.
The Silver-Haired Legislature presented its report to Alexanders committee earlier this month, and its No. 1 priority is for lawmakers to approve McConnells $4.7 million budget request for the Office on Aging. McConnell wants to use the money to help seniors stay out of nursing homes for as long as possible. He told Alexanders committee a story about an elderly man in Charleston who had not had electricity since 2009 and was about to lose his house to foreclosure. McConnell said his office stepped in to keep him at home and out of a nursing home, which most likely would have been paid for with state Medicaid dollars.
State lawmakers already have given McConnell an extra $3 million in recurring money in the 2014 budget, and an extra $2 million the year before that. But McConnell told Alexanders committee the Office on Aging lost $1.7 million in federal money because of automatic budget cuts, and he said the office still has a waiting list of 8,000 seniors trying to get help to stay out of nursing homes.
We are making progress. We just need for the public to understand, McConnell said.
The Silver-Haired Legislature is pushing nine priorities Some require funding, some require creativity, Speaker Marjorie Johnson said including more transportation options for seniors at an affordable fee. They also want to revive an incentive program for physicians, offering to pay up two doctors per year up to $50,000 toward their student loans if they agree to stay in the state for five years and treat Medicaid and Medicare patients. South Carolina previously provided $35,000 under a similar program.
Since medical school costs so far exceed the incentives offered, we ask an increase to $50,000 (for) each student, Johnson said.
While lawmakers mull ways to help seniors, they will need to keep an eye on the states budget. South Carolina residents 65 and older are exempt from property taxes on the first $50,000 of the value of their homes. Property taxes pay for local government services, and the state government reimburses local governments for this lost revenue. But as the senior population continues to grow, so will state payments. In the 2013 fiscal year, state officials estimate the exemption will cost taxpayers $194 million $7 million more than in 2012.
Since 1994, the property tax exemptions have increased more than 300 percent partly due to the states expanding senior population and partly because of lawmakers voting to expand the credit to $50,000 from $25,000.
Alexander said the property tax exemption needs to be a priority for lawmakers in the state budget.
So many times having that homestead exemption is the difference between them being able to stay in their home, Alexander said.
S.C.s senior population: A look at the numbers
Heres a look at the current and projected population of S.C. residents 60 and older
2000: 651,452, or 16 percent of S.C. population
2010: 912,429, or 20 percent of S.C. population
2020: 1,205,000, or 24 percent of S.C. population
2030: 1,526,500, or 28 percent of S.C. population
Source: S.C. Office of Research and Statistics
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.