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Philosophy vs. reality equals gridlock
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

MAY 25, 2003 - - "When in doubt, do nothing. Stay in doubt all of the time."

Yes, it's a cynical political maxim. But all too often, it's played out in legislative chambers.

Take the past week, for example. After three weeks of debate, the S.C. Senate passed a $5 billion budget that surprisingly was smaller than the "shock and awe" budget passed last month by the House.

"I was hoping they (the Senate) was going to save us," one House lawmaker was overheard saying on an elevator Thursday. In other words, some members figured senators would wisely act to maintain funding for education and health care programs cut by the House.

But not only does the Senate budget, like the House budget, cut agencies sharply, it whacks education spending to levels of 10 years ago and provides no real solution for full funding of Medicaid, which means thousands of seniors' benefits likely will be cut.

Last month, when the House passed its budget, most people figured cooler heads would prevail in the Senate and it would do something to keep education and Medicaid funding level.

But after three weeks of wrangling, the Senate met gridlock head-on. Democratic senators wanted to raise the cigarette tax by 53 cents a pack to generate $171 million to keep Medicaid funded at the current levels. They also generally wanted to raise sales taxes some to offset deep cuts to education, which could result in layoffs of 6,600 teachers.

Meanwhile, a group of GOP senators who live by the mantra, "No Tax Increases Ever For Any Reason," helped thwart a plan by Gov. Mark Sanford to raise cigarette taxes while reducing income taxes over 15 years. The complicated plan would have helped Medicaid funding now but reduced overall tax burdens down the road.

So, nothing happened. Doubt won.

"The blood of the poor and the weak will be on our hands," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman reportedly said when urging senators to vote for a cigarette tax increase.

Winner of the week: the philosophy that the state needs to "live within its means" - - even at the expense of seniors and students.

Another big winner was the SC House, which started the bare budget ball rolling with cuts to education and smoke-and-mirrors tactics on Medicaid. Because the Senate couldn't come to terms with this year's budget crisis, the House plan essentially prevailed, which may indicate a shift of legislative power to the House.

"Writing a budget and talking about a budget are two different things, and I think they're beginning to see that," said House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, R-Richland.

There's still time before the June 5 adjournment for lawmakers to do something in its compromise process to keep commitments to Medicaid and education. But time is running out.

If it does, the big losers will be the state's students and seniors. Students will face larger class sizes, fewer teachers and less resources.

Without funding to keep Medicaid at the current level, some 6,000 nursing home patients may have to find new homes. Some 12,000 seniors who get some home care through Medicaid will get no help or have to find alternatives. About 66,000 will do without the SilverCard prescription program. And up to 250,000 may lose other pharmaceutical benefits.

The whole thing frustrates a lot of people.

"If no alternative funding is found for Medicaid, then it will not 'just' be a $170 million reduction, but over a $500 million or $600 million reduction because of the loss of federal match money," said Dr. Stephen Imbeau of Florence, past president of the SC Medical Association. "The loss of the federal match will be a huge hit - - not just to Medicaid and its clients, but also to the general economy, doctors and hospitals."


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