Tuesday, January 14, 2014
South Carolina lawmakers should bolster funding for education, public safety and infrastructure, while also giving most taxpayers a slight income tax decrease, according to a budget plan laid out by Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday.
Education topped her list of priorities, which will also serve as the backdrop for her ongoing campaign for re-election against Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, who has outlined his own education and spending priorities. Sheheen could not be reached for comment.
Haley noted that not all spending requests from agency directors were fulfilled. The state must live within its means, she said.
“For those people who want to raise taxes, I’m not your girl,” she said. “Why are we so anxious to raise taxes when we don’t need to? We have strongly shown we can do it without that.”
The governor’s aides painted a fairly rosy budget picture, as growth in the economy has kept pace and more dollars than anticipated are expected to roll in over the course of the next year. State economic advisers project a tax revenue increase of more than $400 million, with $265 million coming from new money.
Haley’s $177 million initiative would fund new reading coaches in elementary schools, and it would allocate more than $29 million for more laptops and tablets for students in schools that already have Internet, and Internet capability in some of the state’s poorest areas, officials said.
“We believe this is going to bring a huge difference into the way we educate our children in South Carolina so that we no longer educate children based on where they’re born and raised,” Haley said on Monday. “We educate them on the fact that they deserve a good education, and that is our future workforce.”
The plan also provides for an increase in the public subsidy for charter schools. Officials expect charter schools enrollment to grow by 26.7 percent.
Legislators have generally responded positively to Haley’s education plan. Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, has introduced her own education plan that would make education funding across the state more equitable.
Horne said she has not spoken to the governor about her plan, but hopes that the Legislature can pass an education overhaul, whether it’s her bill or another. Horne said, however, that election year politics may play a role.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” she said. “I’d like to think we have a shot (this year). If we do not, we will try, try again.”
If Haley’s budget plan is adopted, about 75 percent of taxpayers, or those with taxable income of $11,520 or more, would see a reduction of about $29 compared with last year, officials said.
Most state employees would not see a raise, except for state firefighters, who would get a 2 percent bump under Haley’s plan. She also touted the state’s emphasis on jobs and keeping the trend of having a pro-business climate.
The plan also provides for $1.35 billion for road maintenance and new infrastructure over the next decade. Those figures are based on estimates that the state will receive more money than currently predicted.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said Haley’s road proposal was laughable, because it’s unclear whether the funding will materialize or not. Those funding projections have proved accurate in the past.
“She obviously has zero regard for telling the truth to the people of South Carolina about what her priorities are,” Stavrinakis said. “If it’s something that is one of your high priorities, don’t you budget for it? That’s not a priority, that’s a leftover.”
Budget officials also said that the governor again plans to emphasize public safety initiatives. Her plan provides for additional funds for the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), which investigates on behalf of the state.
New funds, $3.6 million, should be provided for about 25 new employees, most whom would be officers, officials said. The attorney general’s office would also receive five new prosecutors and additional money would be provided for local prosecutor’s offices statewide, among other state and local safety priorities.
Mental health services would also see a boost, although there is no new money in response to a lawsuit that claims mental health services in state prisons are woefully inadequate, Haley said. The governor said that she has tasked her agency heads to examine the situation and see if further fixes are needed.
“We have strongly invested in mentally ill,” Haley said.
Haley’s top health care priority in her budget proposal would move more than 1,000 South Carolinians with disabilities and special needs off waiting lists and into one of four Medicaid programs to cover their health care costs, such as in-home support and prescription drugs. Waiting lists for these programs currently exceed 10,000 residents.
The recommendation would cost $13 million in state funds and $31 million in federal funds to implement.
The South Carolina Medicaid agency’s budget could grow considerably if the Legislature adopts Haley’s recommendation. The department estimates it needs nearly $6.9 billion for operations next year, up from about $6.5 billion this year.
Part of that increase, about $35 million, would be used to restore emergency dental services and would add preventative dental care for adult Medicaid patients, said S.C. Medicaid Director Tony Keck. Emergency dental care for adults on Medicaid was cut in 2011. Dental benefits for children on Medicaid were not affected by those cuts.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that dental services are truly a public health issue and that I liken sort of preventive dentistry, like cleanings, to vaccinations,” Keck said.
The largest requests from agency leaders that were not included in the governor’s spending plan were large projects from state universities, officials said. The Legislature, which convenes Tuesday, will set its own budget priorities.
Post and Courier reporter Lauren Sausser contributed to this story.
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