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Legislature's agenda is packed this year
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report

JAN. 5, 2003 - - State lawmakers are gearing up for a 2003 session that is likely to be one of the most contentious in memory.

The reason is money. The state, which already has gone through three years of mid-year budget cuts and may have to go through another one this year, has less money to fund government services than ever before because of the dampened economy.

"The budget will have a relation to just about every other issue this year," said new House Minority Leader James Smith, D-Columbia.

State government's needs abound. To continue improvements in schools, education funding is important. To deal with a growing crisis at state prisons, more money is needed for guards. To maintain mental health services, more money is needed. To repair roads, provide health care for the elderly, continue early childhood education improvements, keep water clean, buy library books and maintain homeland security, more money is needed.

While the economy may pick up some next year, it's likely the state won't see monetary benefits - - increased income and sales tax collections - - until the following year. That means it's going to be tight again this year.

Unlike the flush times of the 1990s when lots of programs got funded, taxpayers this year will find some programs struggling to survive. Meanwhile, lawmakers will face a lot of tough choices about where to direct available resources. At the top of this year's legislative agenda are the following:

Medicaid spending and cigarette taxes. The state gets $3 in federal funding for every $1 in state money it matches for this health care program for the elderly and poor children, which makes Medicaid spending a great deal. But this year, like last year, the state will need about $180 million in new money for Medicaid to stay afloat. The likely solution is an increase in the cigarette tax from 7 cents per pack to 60 cents per pack, the national average. While this is all but a foregone conclusion, it won't make the battle any easier.

Other taxes and fees. There also are proposals to boost the gasoline tax to fund needed road improvements. There also will be moves to boost agency fees to help lean budgets. Also, lawmakers also will take a good look at whether to end some of the $1 billion in sales tax exemptions on more than 50 goods and services.

Predatory lending. South Carolina consumers lose an estimated $107 million annually because of predatory lending practices that take advantage of minorities, the poor and elderly, according to the Coalition for Responsible Lending. Key lawmakers wrote proposals last year to end predatory lending. This year, it looks like they'll debate it and make changes.

Campaign and elections reforms. There already are more than a dozen suggested tweaks to state elections and campaign finance laws. Last year, lawmakers got close on a major campaign finance reform bill. This year, they may push campaign accountability measures over the goal line.

Private property rights. Since last session, lawmakers have been working to craft legislation that would give property owners more alternatives when they feel their land has been "taken" by the government. This year, look for movement to protect property rights.

Restructuring. While Gov.-elect Mark Sanford and others have proposed restructuring state agencies, such as making some constitutionally-elected officers become governor-appointed agency heads, there's also work leftover from last year to reform the Public Service Commission.


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