Politics & Government

Budget cuts could cost 1,000 state jobs

Budget cuts could cost at least 1,000 state workers their jobs, if the S.C. House approves the $5.1 billion plan now before it.

Job losses could be even higher.

State agencies said they still are deciding how to deal with the proposed spending plan for the budget year that starts July 1, and the 1,000 job-cut figure is an incomplete, early estimate.

Many agency leaders say layoffs are a certainty.

The national recession has forced the state to cut its budget from a peak of $7.3 billion in June 2008, as sales and income tax collections have plunged. Meanwhile, South Carolina's jobless rate has risen, hitting 12.6 percent in December, fourth-highest in the country.

Agencies that have identified likely layoffs include:

- 300 employees at the Department of Juvenile Justice, where director Judge William Byars said a $15 million cut means the agency will not be able to operate enough beds for youths already in the system.

- 120 employees at the Department of Social Services, who would be shed to close a $15 million budget shortfall. The agency would trim its staff while the number of South Carolinians seeking food assistance and other aid from the agency is rising with the state's jobless rate.

- An estimated 80 employees at the State Department of Education, where more than 100 positions also have been eliminated through attrition.

The House budget proposal also would allow state agencies to require that workers take unpaid holidays.

"Right now, the budget that we have from Ways and Means is a devastating blow," said Byars, whose agency would lose $10 million in state money and $5 million in federal stimulus aid. Byars said he already has laid off 285 full- and part-time employees. The additional budget cut would mean about 44 percent of his state agency would have vanished since 2008.

Federal officials have been monitoring the agency to ensure it meets minimum housing and security standards. But Byars said the cuts will force him to close facilities. That could provoke a federal lawsuit.

Since July 1, 2008, the state has trimmed 2,048 jobs from its payroll, according to State Budget and Control Board figures.

Many of those were workers who were not replaced after they left voluntarily. But continuing state budget cuts also have forced agencies to turn to layoffs.

Agencies have laid off 76 workers - and eliminated 108 jobs - in the current budget year, according to the Budget and Control Board, saving $2.6 million in salaries. An additional 66 workers took buyouts for a total of $2.7 million in salaries.

A combination of mandatory and voluntary unpaid leave has saved an additional $10 million this year.

At the Department of Health and Environmental Control, spokesman Thom Berry said that agency now employs 3,700 workers - 2,300 fewer than it did a decade ago. That means fewer workers to inspect restaurants for cleanliness and day-care centers for safety.

Berry said the agency still is evaluating its priorities to decide "what we may need to do once we find out the final budget."

The threat of layoffs is often a potent political tactic for agencies looking to scratch out a slightly larger slice of the budget.

During last week's Ways and Means debate, for example, some lawmakers said they were upset that a 15 percent cut in Clemson University's Public Service Activities would be the equivalent of closing 39 of 46 county Clemson Extension offices.

Several lawmakers said those county agents provide key support for agribusiness, adding they would oppose closing the county offices.

Clemson officials said they have yet to decide how they will cut that school's budget and whether there will be any layoffs.

Some agencies face restrictions on whom they can cut.

"Half the staff is bus mechanics," said Jim Foster, spokesman for the State Department of Education, of the staff members who maintain the state's fleet of 5,000 school buses. "That's really off the table."

Education money also often has federal or state rules attached - governing testing and graduation requirements, or textbooks - saying certain expenses cannot be eliminated, Foster said.

"We have to figure out how we can have such an extraordinary reduction in force and still comply with all the mandates," Foster said. "We really don't know how we're going to do that."

Others say they are weighing their options while the budget works its way through the State House.

The House will take up the bill the week of March 15. Then, the Senate will craft a plan.

House and Senate negotiators will work out a final compromise once both pass a budget.