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Lawmakers next year to start off behind
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JUNE 8, 2003 - - Even though the 2003 legislative session is freshly over, lawmakers will return next year with their plates already full.

Part of the reason is this year's obsession with the lean budget - - a $5.3 billion behemoth that saw huge cuts to most state agencies. Part of the reason is time ran out in the last-day dash to finish work on several bills. And part of the reason is rising partisanship and inner-party bickering.

Lawmakers started the year with an unhealthy economic situation that caused an atmosphere of cuts and frustration that, for some, led to resentment.

"It started off with a derailment," said State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland. "Then we had a train wreck. Then we had multiple train wrecks. And then we had train wrecks on the trestles that are now collapsing.

"But at least we didn't secede and we didn't declare war on anyone," he joked.

Next year's session already doesn't look much rosier. Here's a short list of what likely will be legislative priorities in 2004:

Budget. Because lawmakers this year used a lot of one-time money to shore up increases in Medicare and to offset some cuts to education, they'll start the next budget process about $300 million behind. In other words, because they used one-time federal bailout money, they'll have to figure out a way to find revenue to replace that money to keep programs running at the same level. Otherwise, Medicaid and school programs could be cut next year.

State Sen. Tom Moore, D-Aiken, criticized Republican reliance on the "Washington red-ink" bailout and use non-recurring monies.

"If that's fiscal conservatism, I don't think the people of South Carolina can handle much more fiscal conservatism."

Tax policy. Because of the dependence this year on one-time funds, legislative leaders likely will look to some kind of tax policy overhaul to allow the government to streamline and generate some new revenues. This year, measures to raise the cigarette tax in one form or another couldn't muster enough support. By next year, the idea may find more favor unless the economy picks up and allows the state generates new revenues from growth.

Medicaid reform. Republicans and some Democrats want to cut waste, screen recipients and make reforms to cut costs for Medicaid. Because costs rise astronomically every year to fund the program, lawmakers believe reform to the process - - which can be translated as cutting services for many and cutting benefits for some who may make too much money to receive the benefit - - can make it more efficient.

Tort reform, business measures. State business leaders want reforms to the tort system to limit the threat of frivolous lawsuits and cap damages, but they'll face an uphill battle with the state's lawyers. Meanwhile, lawmakers again will try to codify employment at-will measures that currently are standard practice due to case law.

Higher education. In the waning minutes of this year's legislative session, Sen. John Kuhn, R-Charleston, held up a measure that would have allowed colleges and universities to borrow to build infrastructure for research and other measures. Legislators likely will renew efforts to provide regulatory relief and create a pool of money to help universities and communities attract biotech companies.

Restructuring. Gov. Mark Sanford proposed several measures to tighten government operations this year. Critics say his ideas need a lot of work because reform efforts would be little more than moving deck chairs on the Titanic. But next year's session likely will include a long look at things to rework how government is organized.

Public Service Commission. For the second session in a row, the legislature has bickered over elections to the state Public Service Commission. The House and Senate continue to butt heads over qualifications required for commissioners. Next year, maybe they'll get around to agreeing on rules and electing commissioners.


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