COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The South Carolina House has sent the Senate a $5 billion budget for the coming year, after an all-night session that focused on abortion, cigarette taxes and a loan to a golf tournament.
The House approved the budget 64-52 Thursday morning, with a final vote minutes later.
"It's hard to find a real positive change that occurred during the budget deliberations," Rep. James Smith (D-Richland) said about the all-night session.
"I just don't know who won in all this," agreed Rep. Nathan Ballantine (R-Richland).
In the end, few of the lawmakers we spoke to were happy about the way the budget turned out. After the final vote around 8am, some like Smith were disappointed by the political wrangling that took place on non-budget issues.
"The house was bogged down in some petty political debates that are not going to educate a single child, provide health care to a single citizen, or provide a job for a single South Carolinian," Smith said.
Ballentine voted against the spending plan, in part because he says the it uses Federal funding for education and Medicaid that hasn't been approved by Washington yet.
"It's monopoly money," Ballantine said. "It doesn't exist."
"It's more than monopoly money, it's real money that we've been depending upon," countered fellow Republican Rep. Alan Clemmons. "We're depending upon it for South Carolina education. If we don't get it, then we're back to the drawing board."
The plan raises the state's cigarette by 30 cents per pack to 37 cents. The money goes to a trust fund for Medicaid expenses.
South Carolina's seven cents-per-pack cigarette tax is the nation's lowest and has not changed since 1977. A 30-cent increase would make the tax equal to Georgia's and still 8 cents per pack cheaper than North Carolina's.
Nationwide, the average state cigarette tax is $1.34 per pack, with Rhode Island ranking first at $3.46.
State Superintendent Jim Rex, who is running for governor and has advocated a higher cigarette tax to help fund education, said the 30-cent increase is "woefully inadequate."
Rex has proposed raising the tax to the national average and splitting the increased revenues between public education and health care.
"These are our two primary responsibilities to our fellow citizens," Rex said. "For the general well-being of our state – our economic well-being, our educational well-being and our health – this is something we need to do."
The House bill also promises to loan the state's only PGA golf tournament $10 million if it can't find a new sponsor.
The plan bans most abortions for those covered by the state insurance plan, the only exception being to save a mother's life.
The budget is down from $7 billion two years ago. It allows furloughs of state employees as a way of dealing with cuts. Layoffs are expected across state agencies.
Governor Mark Sanford appeared on a Columbia television station Thursday morning to give his take on the budget. Sanford listed his top three priorities.
"I would say law enforcement continues to be a core function of government, and therefore if you look at some of which is done, whether it's the juvenile justice side or others, we need to look very, very carefully at what happens there," said Sanford. "I think as you correctly point out, this larger notion of jobs and the economic development and look at ways to fund there. And lastly, I would say the larger question of the budget itself is let's not make a big hole even bigger and be very, very careful about using federal money."
Sanford said in these tough economic times, no agency is completely protected from cuts.
Copyright 2009 WIS. All rights reserved.