SC budget protest rally comes with mixed signals

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - Teachers and state workers are planning to rally at the Statehouse on Saturday to protest budget cuts and call for eliminating tax breaks, though recent changes have made the cuts less painful for some groups.

Teachers intend to march to the Statehouse from the Education Department's headquarters, but the spending plan that legislators will begin debating Monday helps shield their ranks from deep budget cuts by tapping $100 million in state reserves.

That spending proposal for public schools was a key part of the $5.2 billion spending plan.

House budget writers dealt with a $700 million budget gap by partially using reserves to make up for federal bailout cash that has dried up. And they cut spending elsewhere - particularly in Medicaid, welfare and colleges.

Otherwise, the evaporation of $174 million in bailout cash in public schools would have cost thousands of teachers their jobs. But the state reserve cash, as well as other changes in the state public school budget, mostly spared those jobs.

"More teachers will be able to keep their jobs, and we're very thankful," said Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. Her group holds its annual convention Saturday in Lexington.

It's a 1-time fix, however, and educators want more stable funding for schools, said Scott Prices, the lobbyist for the South Carolina School Boards Association.

"In this budget year, happy's relative. Things could be a whole lot worse," Price said.

Not so for the state's poor, said the Rev. Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the South Carolina Christian Action Council who is helping organize the Rally for a Moral Budget. She said the state is missing out by not at least considering ways to raise cash through minor tax law changes, including those recommended months ago by a panel that legislators created.

She notes the spending plan locks in a reduction in welfare payments last month by the Department of Social Services as the agency faced at $28 million deficit. For an average mother of 2, monthly checks they earn by being enrolled in work programs and by working have fallen from $270 to $216 monthly.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services has won budget writers' approval to cut $125 million in Medicaid payments to doctors, hospitals and other providers. Hospitals had pushed a plan to raise a tax on hospital visits. That idea went nowhere and hospitals say they face cutting thousands of jobs.

"This is a travesty at a time with potential cuts coming that will leave devastation for hundreds of thousands of lives," Kneece said, noting the Medicaid program serves nearly 900,000 people. "This can't be passed off as, 'Oh, these cuts are terrible, but there are no other options.'"

Kneece and Brett Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, said a tax system overhaul panel came up with plenty of ideas last year. For instance, Bursey points to a proposed 30% sales tax limit on portable toilet charges.

And Kneece says the state's income tax should be raised by 2%age points for people making more than $250,000 a year. "That is not a horrendous burden on them to pay for living in South Carolina," Kneece said.

State workers will be at the rally, too, said Joe Benton, executive director of the South Carolina State Employees Association. They worry about keeping jobs after years of layoffs and unpaid furloughs cutting into wages, said Joe Benton, the group's interim director.

The furloughs alone have saved the state $37 million since July 2008, state data shows. For instance, between June 2009 and July 2010, 16,389 state workers were furloughed for an average of more than six unpaid days.

Benton said future budget cuts can't be managed with furloughs. "It will have to be massive layoffs," Benton said.

There are no estimates for how many people will gather.

But organizers say it's the first act. They're also planning to pack the Statehouse lobby as House members show up to debate the budget Monday.

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