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,
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
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
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