By Bill Davis, senior editor | The news this budget season isn’t so rosy for the John de la Howe School, a public residential school in McCormick for at-risk students.
The House committee version of the proposed 2017-18 state budget that will be debated next week calls for all state money to be cut to the school, which was founded in 1797. The “second longest standing” educational institution in the Carolinas, the school would celebrate its 100th anniversary as a state-supported school next year.
This year’s $8 billion budget package also calls for the school’s agriculture program and classes to be picked up and covered by Clemson University. School supporters say they’ll try to block efforts to cut funding.
The total amount of the proposed 2017-18 state budget — comprised of General Fund tax dollars, federal pass-through dollars and “other” fees and funds such as tuition — will hit $27 billion starting in July. That’s close to a 3 percent increase over the state’s current combined budget.
The $8 billion in the state’s general fund, which is fueled by state tax dollars, has grown by $350 million, or 4.7 percent, over comparable funding in the state’s current budget, according to projections by the state Board of Economic Advisors.
House members will start debate on the budget package on Monday in a session shortened this year by three weeks. The budget package is also replete with hundreds of pages of special one-year laws, called provisos.
Lamenting the possible loss of an historic school
Last year, the John de la Howe School lost its academic accreditation, and the legislature sent a message in its budget package: Get it together or be gone. Part of the deal for the school, whose enrollment has dwindled in recent years, was for its leadership to work closely with an advisory board on important decisions.
State Rep. Anne Parks (D-Greenwood) lamented that the school, which resides in her district, hasn’t had enough time to work with the advisory board. “You can’t expect a difference overnight,” said Parks, a mortician.
Parks said the legislature has never been comfortable with the relatively high student cost of the school. “But everyone needs to keep in mind that at the end of the school day, these kids don’t head home. They go back to their rooms at the school,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey (R-Edgefield) said he would not support cutting the school’s funding, if that portions survives House debate. Massey, handing out singular praise for its “transformative” wilderness program, said de la Howe was “much more than just a school.”
Massey said he would tell critics in the legislature to swallow the extra cost of the residential school.
“Sure, it’s expensive, but having more people in custody of the Department of Corrections is expensive … I’d rather spend the money up front and help a kid get their life on the right track and not end up” in a state prison later, he said. “It is better for the individual and for the state, in terms of cost long-term.”
“Hand grenades” may be lobbed
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White (R-Anderson) said Friday to expect a couple of “hand grenades” to be lobbed on the floor of the House next week, first from Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg), who has promised to fight for an across-the-board state employee raise.
He said to also expect some “push back” from environmentalists and their supporters in the House to reestablish funding for the state Conservation Bank.
White said that he had already received some positive statements from cities and counties across the state regarding how the proposed package would plug $118 million directly into the state’s retirement system. The system is currently facing several decades of shortfalls due to investment decisions, and benefits increases authored by the legislature without offsetting cash infusions.
The $118 million would represent a 1-percent increase in employer contributions, but the state’s own employees and recipients only make up less than 40 percent of all beneficiaries. The rest are local employees included in the plan, such as teachers and police officers.
White said the feedback he received was that the smaller governmental entities could handle a 1-percent increase, but not more.
“[The budget] a big document that we have to pass, so we’ll just sit back and see what happens,” White said.
One item included in the budget, competitive grants, is already getting a cold reception in the House. The program is called “pork” by critics. Speaking of critics, Gov. Henry McMaster said this week that he was opposed to a proposed gas tax increase that passed a Senate panel, which could potentially cause ripples in the relative calm of this year’s budgeting process.
With budgeting, the devil may be in the details and there are some thorny issues squirreled away in the hundreds of pages of provisos produced by White’s committees.
- Proviso 33.18. The state would get to suspend part of a program called GAPS, or Gap Assistance Pharmacy Program for Seniors.
- Proviso 117.97. The state would not expend any money on a new University of South Carolina-associated medical school in Greenville; but the budget package sets out $5 million for a new burn unit at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
- Proviso 108.6. The state would cover a 3.3 percent increase in premiums for state employee health care insurance programs and would not increase employee premiums or co-pays.
- Proviso 1.3. The state would cover a 1 percent salary increase for public school employees to keep with Southeastern state average salaries, as well as increase per-pupil funding across the board. But if there were a downturn in state tax collections, the state would exempt its charter district schools from further cuts.
- Read all provisos.
- Have a comment? Send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.