The Buzz

Schools, counties to be shorted in state budget

Chapin High School
Chapin High School mwalsh@thestate.com

With $1.2 billion in additional money to spend this year, S.C. lawmakers are preparing to short-change S.C. schools and counties by $600 million.

Meanwhile, S.C. colleges will get $75 million less than they received before the Great Recession.

As a result, S.C. residents likely will get fewer services from local governments and college students will face more tuition hikes.

State law sets how much money K-12 schools should get per pupil from the state. State law also requires local governments — largely counties — be given state money for the services that they provide for the state.

Neither of those requirements is likely to be met in the state budget that begins July 1. The Senate is set to take up the roughly $7.5 billion spending proposal next week.

Education and counties are being short-changed because the Legislature refused to increase the gas tax, a Democratic state senator said Monday. Instead of raising that tax, lawmakers are poised to send more than $300 million of the state’s added revenues to roads, not counties and schools.

Lower services, higher tuitions

The state’s spending on counties and schools was slashed starting in 2009-10 as the nation struggled to recover from the Great Recession.

In 2009-10, lawmakers spent $230 million on local governments, a $50 million cut from the previous year. The local government fund has remained lower — at $212.6 million — for the past four years.

The House proposes keeping local government spending at $212.6 million again next fiscal year. However, the Senate’s budget-writing panel has approved an increase to $240 million.

Still, that is $72 million short of the amount that state law says counties should get.

Not paying the full amount due to local governments will impact taxpayers, said Tim Winslow of the S.C. Association of Counties. South Carolinians ultimately will see a “decrease in services, despite the fact they’re paying more in property taxes,” Winslow said.

Meanwhile, S.C. technical colleges, colleges and universities still are trying to get restored the state money they lost when their state budgets were slashed during the recession. Today, the state’s funding of higher education is $245 million lower than it was before the economic downturn.

However, the S.C. House and Senate Finance Committee have proposed increasing higher ed spending by roughly $170 million in the budget that starts July 1.

K-12: $583 shortfall per student

The House and Senate Finance panel also propose increasing K-12 spending by $217.6 million.

However, that is $517 million short of the amount that state law says schools should be getting, according to state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.

Before the Great Recession, the state spent $2,578 per student on K-12 education. In the wake of that economic implosion, spending dropped by nearly $700 a student, hitting $1,880 in 2011-2012.

Next fiscal year, spending would increase to $2,350 per student.

While still $583 a student below the required level, advocates say schools now get some added money from other parts of the state budget, offsetting that gap.

Lawmakers will spend more on education elsewhere in the state budget, including school buses and technology, state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman said. In addition, increased state spending on healthcare and to fix roads and bridges helps schools operate more effectively, Spearman said.

Lawmakers also are giving schools more money based on the number of low-income students that they educate, said state Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, chair of the House budget panel that decides public education spending.

That money is not reflected in the state’s per-pupil spending, he added.

Roads rob schools, counties?

The state is closing its spending gaps for schools, colleges and local governments, said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland.

But, he added, “Closing the gap is not good enough.”

Lourie pointed to the Legislature’s refusal to increase the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax — instead voting to pay for road repairs out of the general fund budget — as the reason that education and counties will continue to be shortchanged.

“We can’t fund our roads issue long term out of the general budget,” Lourie said. “We’ve got to create a new source of revenue so we don’t pull from other agencies that are still underfunded.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Budget winners and losers

Because of the recovering economy, legislators had $1.2 billion in new revenues to spend when they returned to Columbia in January. A look at their priorities:

Winners

+ $300 million: Short-term fix for road and bridge repairs

+ 150 million: Flood relief

Losers

— $517 million: Amount K-12 schools will be short-changed

— $85 million: Amount local governments will be short-changed

— $75 million: Amount state spending on higher ed will be down, compared to before the Great Recession

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