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Hodges is going out a fighter for education
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report

DEC. 1, 2002 - - Like a gunslinger down to his last bullet, Gov. Jim Hodges has one big final showdown before he turns over the reins of government to Mark Sanford.

With a massive $348 million shortfall facing state government at mid-year, the open question is whether Hodges, who built his tenure on improving education, will be able to protect it from budget cuts when the Legislature convenes in special session next week.

Odds are Hodges will make a valiant effort, but fail because Republicans are holding a stacked deck.

While the General Assembly convenes Dec. 9, a meeting of the state Budget and Control Board on the following day is where the showdown really starts. During that meeting, all eyes will be on State Treasurer Grady Patterson and outgoing Comptroller General Jim Lander, both Democrats. Either could side with the two Republicans on the board - - Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman of Florence and Rep. Bobby Harrell of Charleston - - on a plan to implement across-the-board cuts to generate the savings to keep state government balanced.

It's a good bet Patterson or Lander will side with the GOP. Why? Because of the pressure they're getting from Wall Street. If the state doesn't take decisive, quick action - - and a special legislative session could be anything but quick - - South Carolina could lose its much-heralded AAA credit rating. That would force state costs up even more because it wouldn't be able to get the best rate to finance projects.

If the budget board votes for across-the-board cuts, the General Assembly would have to develop an alternative spending plan within five days. Otherwise, the budget board's cuts would go into effect automatically, according to state law.

The easiest thing, of course, would be for the General Assembly to let the cuts occur and do nothing. That essentially would be another win for Republicans, who have been calling for across-the-board cuts since September when it was clear the economy hadn't turned around.

But if Republicans wanted to poke Hodges in the political eye, they could pass an alternative that was a package of cuts and an increase in the state's low cigarette tax. Business and advocacy groups are behind an increase and Republicans would have a lot of cover in doing it before next year. Additionally, such an increase would fall during Hodges' watch as governor, not on Sanford's. If the GOP refrained from any other tax increases for four years, Sanford would be able to run for re-election on a platform that he had not raised taxes (although he does advocate increasing gas taxes to replace income taxes.)

So the question becomes why did Hodges do it - - why did he call the General Assembly back into session?

We think it's because he wanted to leave office on his own terms - - as a governor who fought tooth and nail to improve education and who fought to the last moment to protect it.

If Hodges loses the across-the-board cut vote in the Budget and Control Board, he can say he offered a plan to keep education intact and shield it from a $90 million cut. If the board doesn't make the sweeping cut, then the Republican-led legislature will have to deal with the problem. And if they cut education any, Democrats will be able to holler Republicans really aren't committed to education - - that when it got tough, they voted to hurt the state's students.

You might not like Jim Hodges and might think he's a lousy politician. But you've got to admire him for one thing - - he sticks to his guns. Right down to the last bullet.

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