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2004 election starts early over education
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JUNE 1, 2003 - - For all intents and purposes, the election season of 2004 started Thursday when the S.C. House approved a $5 billion budget that whacked millions of dollars from public education.

Even though the compromise budget plan stalled in the Senate and lawmakers will have to make some modification in the coming week, Democrats now have a huge hammer to wield against Republicans for the first time in years.

SC Rep. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said the 72-37 House vote to approve the compromise budget sent a clear message "that the majority of our Legislature is not committed to public education….When it comes time to step up to the plate and make the tough decisions, the majority in this body are running from their responsibility."

Added former House Minority Leader Doug Jennings, D-Bennettsville, "Part of the revitalization of the Democratic Party is not only the early presidential primary but also some of the decisions made by the majority party."

But Republicans say South Carolina voters will perceive this year's budget crisis differently at the polls.

Rep. Converse Chellis, R-Summerville, said Republican leaders tried to safeguard education during budget difficulties over the last three years.

"We worked hard not to touch it over the three-year period," he said. "It's the last thing we wanted to touch, but at some point we got to that part of the apple in the tree and had to shave a little."

State GOP Chairman Katon Dawson said South Carolinians understand it's important for the state to live within its means, especially in a time of economic crisis.

"It is the responsibility of elected officials to spend what we have and spend it adequately and responsibly," Dawson said. "I think that's what they [Republican leaders] are doing."

He added that raising taxes in a time of economic crisis wouldn't fly because it wasn't right. Furthermore, he indicated Republicans could counter any 2004 campaign bullets fired by Democrats that Republicans opposed public education with advertising that Democrats wanted to raise taxes.

"Sure they have a sledge hammer, but there's a good chance we're going to turn around and beat their brains with it."

Whatever happens politically in 17 months, the results of this year's decision to cut the education budget are clear:

  • Of the possible 6,000 teachers who faced layoffs unless local communities raised property taxes, drained emergency funds or cut other expenses, more than 2,000 teaching positions and 300 administrative positions have already been eliminated across the state, according to the State Department of Education.

  • Services, particularly remedial services such as summer school or after-school programs, have been eliminated or greatly reduced throughout South Carolina.

  • Districts have reduced or eliminated teacher training, foreign language training, programs for gifted students and guidance services.

  • They have frozen school technology initiatives and postponed much-needed building maintenance. Some have cut athletic programs; others will make students pay fees to play high school sports.

  • Class sizes will rise.

Bottom line: the rubber met the road this year with education spending. Voters will have a clear chance at the polls in November 2004 to speak out whether they preferred state leaders to raise taxes some, such as a proposal by Lourie to increase the sales tax a half cent to fully fund education, or cut schools to 1996 funding levels.


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