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Budget pushes state more
toward two Carolinas

By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

MAY 18, 2003 - - Nobody's talking much about it, but deep cuts to the state budget likely mean a widening gap between the two Carolinas - - poorer, rural South Carolina and the state's growing urban sector.

If state lawmakers, as expected, push through a $5.1 billion budget with millions of dollars of cuts to education and other state agencies, services in poorer areas will decline dramatically.

"It's an abomination that this General Assembly has failed in its responsibilities to the kids of this state, particularly rural kids," said former House Minority Leader Gilda Cobb Hunter, D-Orangeburg. "How we think South Carolina will have a promising future when we are failing to educate those who will be responsible for it is beyond me."

While educational opportunity is widely regarded as the key to future successes in South Carolina, rural areas have been plagued over the last 20 years with job losses, reductions in the manufacturing sector, an aging population, less economic investment and dwindling leadership in communities, according to a Sept. 2002 report by MDC called "The State of the South 2002: Shadows in the Sunbelt Revisited."

"Even running as fast as they can, distressed communities have found themselves mired in longstanding problems - - low education, high poverty - - and overwhelmed by the newer forces of globalization and technological change," the report said.

Now with more state budget cuts looming, rural South Carolina faces fewer teachers and less access to a range of services from health care and transportation to economic development and infrastructure investment.

"A growing prosperity and opportunity divide exists between nonmetro and metro counties in the Carolinas," according to an ongoing five-year Duke Endowment study called Program for the Rural Carolinas.

In short, rural South Carolina, already way behind, is poised to fall behind more unless something is done.

A big reason behind the rural region's downward spiral is directly related to affluence. Rural areas don't have the vibrant tax base enjoyed by urban areas, where 70 percent of the state's population lives.

In urban areas, a more diverse tax base allows schools and other agencies to be able to deal with state cuts more easily because they can generate some new revenues through growth, or as in Florence recently, can vote to raise taxes slightly to pay for better services.

State Reps. Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, and Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, say they plan to reorganize the Legislative Rural Caucus in the coming week to address the funding inequities felt in rural areas.

"If people from rural areas get together and begin voting as a bloc, then maybe we can get a little more clout," Lucas said.

But in the state budget being currently considered, there's not much good news for folks from rural parts of the state.

"Those who have will get by, but they will get at a less comfortable rate," said SC Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. "But those who have not will suffer pain."

He said until the General Assembly looked at disparities among various sectors of the state's population, things wouldn't get better for a lot of people.

"There's a school of thought that you need a train wreck - - that sometimes the train wreck will build a better train after the disaster and that's where we seem to be headed."

But Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said he thought the state was already starting to pull out of an economic slide.

"This shortfall is going to be temporary," he said. "This time next year, we'll be in a different environment. The economy is going to overtake the crisis."

And then he added, "I hope I'm right."


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