Angered by higher college costs and the implosion of S.C. State University, the S.C. House voted Monday to defund the agency that oversees S.C. colleges.
State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, pushed to take the Commission on Higher Education’s proposed $3 million budget and move the money to the state Treasurer’s Office.
Merrill said he is frustrated the commission has acted as an advocate for S.C. public colleges, instead of regulating them. Merrill wants the state to establish a more powerful state board of regents to regulate universities, a proposal he has pushed unsuccessfully for years.
Merrill said the budgets of state colleges have exploded while the schools ask for more state money. To rein in costs, the commission should be eliminating the expensive duplication of programs at state colleges, he said.
He also pointed to S.C. State University, which is struggling to pay its bills. Merrill said the commission should have brought the school’s $17 million deficit to the attention of lawmakers. (Both the House and Senate have proposals to replace S.C. State’s trustees, most of whom legislators appoint.)
Other legislators said Merrill’s move, which passed on a voice vote, was the wrong way to change the way South Carolina oversees its public colleges.
The current commission is a coordinating council, lacking the powers of a board of regents, said state Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, formerly the commission’s communications director. If colleges do not like what the commission decides, they can try to circumvent that decision by going to the General Assembly, she added.
“If we want a board of regents in this state, and we feel that is the way to go, then it needs to go through the Legislature to be vetted properly … not through the budget process,” Allison said.
Merrill said he did not like making the move through the budget but, he added, the House action was a way to send the proposal to the Senate.
State Sen. John Courson, the Richland Republican who heads the Senate Education Committee, also said changing the commission should be done through standalone legislation, not the state budget. But, he added, the commission should have raised red flags about S.C. State.
The decision to defund the commission was part of the House’s budget debate, which started Monday, of how to spend $6.9 billion in S.C. taxpayers’ money in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
House members also approved:
• Giving K-12 schools $100 more per student, an increase to $2,220 on average, a move costing $94 million
• Doubling the pay raises to be given state Social Services child-welfare workers over the increases requested by that embattled agency
• Hiring only a third of the new employees that Social Services requested to reduce the work load of its case workers
That reduction initially was a pointed message aimed at the state agency, under scrutiny for more than a year because of the deaths of children under its supervision.
But state Rep. Murrell Smith, the Sumter Republican who chairs the committee that oversees Social Services’ budget, said he expects changes in the agency’s funding after its leaders make a budget presentation to state senators.