South Carolina budget writers passed a plan Thursday that would cut roughly $104 million from public education and slice down many state agencies by as much as one fifth. The Ways and Means Committee finished its appropriations bill after four days of work, trying to deal with a $5.1 billion recession-shrunk budget.
The committee spent the week working on the project, and the final day of work Thursday contained a note of finality for many state jobs as well as patient recipients. The plan not only contains slices to state agencies, but would cut health care. It would strike off AIDS drugs, chop mental health funding and reduce the number of allowable Medicaid prescription drugs from ten down to three.
That education cut includes lowering per-student spending to $1,630, the same funding level used 15 years ago, as well as reducing the education department’s administrative budget by a fifth, or $5 million, which officials say would mean an impact of many lost jobs.
But as bad as this budget year is, Committee Chairman Dan Cooper said Thursday that next year will be much worse, with a shortfall close to one-billion dollars, when the state no longer has federal stimulus dollars.
The House’s head Democrat Harry Ott says he is unhappy with the entire budget process. He says committee members have been receiving legislation for reductions just 20 minutes before they were expected to vote on major decisions.
And Ott says he’s disturbed that the Ways and Means Committee and the House hasn’t done a better job at prioritizing, and developed a standard of priorities which he says is essential during desperate budget debates.
Richland County Representative Joe Neal was among Democrats who voted against the plan. He was outspoken against cuts to health care and education. He says the plan totally eliminates funding for drugs for those with HIV and AIDS. And Neal says mental health services will be affected for between 1700 and 2000 patients across the state who benefit from community mental health centers. He says some centers will be closed, and some patients, without regular assistance, will end up on the street, or in prison.
(Neal on budget MP3 2:30)
Neal on budget
The budget plan also would increase the state’s lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax by 30 cents, up to 37 cents per pack, to benefit health care.
Colleges and universities were not cut much in the budget plan due to federal stimulus dollars. But Cooper notes that those funds will not be present next year.