Monday, April 1, 2013
In an odd show of unanimity, friends, family and acquaintances state that I have been cranky for the past few weeks. While I would prefer the term “focused,” I have to admit that in the final stages of working on the state budget I might be mildly prone to agitation.
In my defense, staring at thousands of pages of spread sheets with microscopic number lines lends itself to the occasional outburst. I simply don’t understand why a larger font for printing spreadsheet numbers has not been invented. Someone told me that large fonts do exist, but it has been my experience that whomever has access to this innovation would rather one use a hubble telescope than provide access to numbers that are readily viewable to the naked eye.
Anyway, the House version of the state budget is complete and passed almost unanimously. (One person voted against it.) Here are some of the highlights.
The state budget, including federal and other funds, is approximately $22.7 billion. Last year’s budget was $23.6 billion. The decrease is primarily because food stamps were moved off budget since the state does not direct that expense.
Direct state appropriations total $6.2 billion with most of that revenue coming from income tax and sales tax.
The most contentious issue was the Affordable Care Act, i.e. healthcare, i.e. Obamacare which would expand medicaid by $12 billion. The House chose to opt out of the mandatory portions and redirect existing funding directly to hospitals and preventive services in an effort to decrease the dependency on emergency rooms for healthcare.
Highlights of the House plan include:
• $20 million – to pay rural hospitals for care provided to low-income patients. This proposal was endorsed by Governor Haley in her State of the State address.
• $8 million to expand tele-medicine programs through the Medical University of South Carolina. This will help provide specialist care in rural communities to lower the costs of employing specialists in these areas.
• $7 million to help “aged, blind or disabled persons” pay for residential-care facilities.
• $3 million to repay the student loans of doctors who work in underserved areas of the state.
The House placed an emphasis on directing Medicaid dollars to children, the elderly, the underserved and pregnant women. The intent is for this plan to expand access to healthcare across the state, while avoiding the creation of additional government programs.
Another unanticipated expenditure was for cyber security. After the recent hacking of Department of Revenue data, a tremendous amount of effort has been spent on protecting residents who were victimized while also identifying protection measures for the future. Thus, $45.2 million was placed aside for an extension of monitoring services beyond the current one-year contract and for implementing state agency security measures for the future.
This is important to note: The House has set aside funding that will allow for credit monitoring to continue beyond the one year that is currently being offered. Although multiple companies have been contacted and negotiations are on-going, a step has been taken to insure that monitoring will continue beyond the current one year arrangement. I am hopeful the Senate will support this effort and additional information will be forthcoming.
For K-12 education an additional $175 million was used to increase base student cost to $2,012 per student. Additional funding for buses was also included in the legislation.
Local government, or aid to subdivisions, is approximately $182 million and includes the $30 million increase from last year’s budget.
Parks Recreation and Tourism received a $3 million dollar increase for internal operations and advertising, and the public/private regional marketing program was funded at $12 million dollars.
The Department of Corrections received a considerable increase of $18 million after running a debt in recent years. The Department of Juvenile Justice was appropriated an additional $9.2 million.
Though a direct pay raise for state employees is not included in its budget, the House appropriation bill actually includes a larger contribution than last year’s pay raise. The House invested in its state employees by fully paying for the increase in health care premiums. Almost $60 million was set aside to pay for increases to health care premiums so employees will not have to pay for that increase. There is, however, a 20 percent increase on co-pays to defray the remainder of paying for the rising cost of employee benefits.
The Secretary of State received increased funding for one time revenue in order to modernize its on-line services and database access. These changes should improve customer service and agency quality.
The Department of Mental Health received additional funding although it is clear that this area of the budget will require significant operational change in the future.
Higher Education spending was increased, but this is another area where a comprehensive plan must be formulated. In my opinion the expansion “arms race” that currently exists cannot be sustained through current funding methods. There was, however, a first step taken toward consolidating the University of South Carolina’s branch campuses funding and placing them under one umbrella.
The Department of Transportation received approximately $100 million that will go toward construction or repair of roads and bridges. To put it mildly, a bunch more money than that is needed but infrastructure improvement is gaining momentum as a priority.
There is much, much more to the state budget and I have only highlighted a few issues. The entire budget is available on line at scstatehouse.gov and the Ways and Means Committee will also provide additional support documents.
The good news is that one third of the state budget is now complete and - unlike our federal government - it is balanced. Now the Senate will have a go at the appropriations bill and we will reconcile any changes during Conference Committee in June.
(Rep. Jim Merrill (R) is the former Majority Leader of the S.C. House of Representatives and represents District 99 which covers parts of Hanahan, Daniel Island, Mount Pleasant, Goose Creek, Cainhoy and North Charleston.)