It’s unlikely to happen, but if there is a shortfall in revenues, S.C. agencies propose roughly $200 million in budget cuts that would eliminate hundreds of state workers’ jobs.
In August, Gov. Nikki Haley directed state agencies paid for through the general fund budget – largely tax dollars that come from sales taxes and business and personal income taxes – to include a plan for 3 percent cuts in their spending requests for next year.
Haley ordered the plans for cuts in case of an economic downturn.
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The likelihood of a recession is low, economists say, particularly since the Nov. 8 election of Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who is promising an economic stimulus package including tax cuts and spending on infrastructure.
But that wasn’t known when Haley requested state agencies to prepare for a possible recession.
State agencies responded that if they did have to cut their budgets by 3 percent, they would cut programs and staffing.
▪ S.C. schools, through the Department of Education, would cut $86.4 million. Those cuts would come at the same time that rural schools, having won a 20-plus-year-old lawsuit, are trying to get the state to give them more money.
▪ The embattled Department of Social Services said it would cut $4.5 million, which includes more than 300 employees. After the deaths of children under its supervision, Social Services has been spending millions more to add workers so that it could cut the caseloads of overworked child-welfare workers.
▪ The state’s health agency said it would cut $3.6 million in spending. That agency has been adding staffers to its dam-regulation program in the wake of dam failures in 2015 and earlier this fall.
▪ The Department of Juvenile Justice said it would cut $3.2 million. That agency’s Broad River Road campus was racked by a riot last year, caused in part by staffing shortages among underpaid workers.
However, the cuts do not seem likely.
State budget forecasters, who met earlier this month, do not project any cuts will be needed. Instead, they added $446 million in new revenues to the general fund budget that lawmakers will have to spend next year.
“It’s always good to have a plan,” state Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, who chairs the House budget-writing panel, said of Haley’s budget-cutting exercise.
But, he added, “I hope there’s not a downturn.”
If state agencies had to implement 3 percent cuts, S.C. schools would get hit hard.
The state still has not responded to a S.C. Supreme Court ruling that the state is not doing enough for poor, rural schools.
Until the lawsuit is settled and schools have the resources they need, the Department of Education opposes a 3 percent cut to education spending, said spokesman Ryan Brown.
If a 3 percent cut was imposed, Social Services, which has struggled to hire and retain caseworkers and reduce their caseloads, would cut 336 full-time employees, including 156 caseworkers. The agency also would eliminate a teen pregnancy prevention program.
“The department would reduce administrative and/or state office positions first and the elimination of front line/caseworker positions would be a last resort,” said spokeswoman Karen Wingo.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control said its cuts would include funding for a rabies control program, shifting financial responsibility for the program to S.C. counties.
The agency would follow state law and operate the program, said spokesperson Jennifer Read. But it would ask for assistance from county sheriff’s deputies and local animal control officers to capture and quarantine animals.
Haley will likely unveil her proposed state spending plan, outlining her priorities, in January.
S.C. lawmakers are not bound by that plan, and sometimes pay little attention to it.
House budget subcommittees will begin meeting in January to hear state agencies’ requests.
“The reason we have (budget) hearings is so we can sort out the needs from the wants,” said Assistant GOP Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York.
Some state agencies must be treated with care. Social Services, for example, “has been under fire, under funded and under staffed,” Simrill said.
Even if budget cuts are needed, state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he did not anticipate House or Senate budget panels making across-the-board cuts.
That last happened during the Great Recession, when the economy hit rock bottom, Jackson said, adding that across-the-board cuts are irresponsible. Instead, if needed, lawmakers should make cuts strategically, he said.
“It’s difficult to go across-the-board” in state budget cuts, Simrill said. “One size does not fit all in state government.”