Wednesday, April 23, 2014
I hope that you and your family enjoyed a happy and blessed Easter.
The legislative session has passed the mid-point with a mixed bag of accomplishments and activity. The majority of attention in recent days was the conclusion of both the state budget debate in the House and the time period for filing for elected office.
By most accounts, the House budget is pretty decent. More importantly, it is balanced. The appropriations bill has now been sent to the State Senate and will return to the House in May with their amendments. At that point, a conference committee will convene and work out differences before forwarding the final document to the governor. The governor wields the power of the veto, and after her consideration, the General Assembly will return to address any vetoes. I expect a final budget to be complete by mid-June. The fiscal year then begins on July 1 and lasts through June 30, 2015.
Budget highlights include:
An emphasis on conforming to Gov. Haley's K-12 Education Reform Proposal. Total new funding was more than $180 million and base student cost was increased. Additional appropriations were dedicated to reading initiatives, technology improvements, high poverty areas and charter schools.
The House budget provides a 1.5 percent state employee pay raise that costs almost $23 million. More significantly, we paid for the entire health care premium increase of almost $57 million. Employees will see a slight increase in co-payments, but to fund both the premium increase and a pay raise required a great deal of effort.
All reserve funds and capital reserve funds are fully funded.
$14.5 million was allocated for cyber security upgrades and another $6.5 million for identity theft protection.
Local road funding (C-funds) was increased by $8.2 million and a new “buy back” program was instituted that encourages local governments to acquire small stretches of road that have previously been under state jurisdiction.
The Office on Aging appropriation was increased by almost $5 million between respite care and home- and community-based services.
Almost $4 million was allocated for S.C. State Park's capital projects.
The health care budget continues to absolutely explode. As most know, this is a point of contention and a cause of great concern. Just a small portion of the health care budget includes $130 million for medicaid maintenance of effort, $10.5 million for mental health services, $13.3 million for disability and special needs, the previously mentioned state health plan and on and on. This budget item is growing at an unsustainable pace and will continue to be a tremendous challenge.
Higher education received a smaller amount of new funding than it has in recent years ($17 million for technical schools, a long list of capital expenditures at the various colleges and universities, an additional $28 million for scholarships). However, $4 million was allocated for a complete review of efficiency and effectiveness at the campus and statewide level that should identify areas of concern and improvement. This review is a long-standing necessity and will result in cost savings and emphasis placed on programs and institutions that are being run effectively. (Locally, we did include almost $5 million for the Trident Aerospace Training Center.)
Economic development gained a big boost with a $37 million dollar increase to the “closing fund” and another $10 million for site development and research initiatives.
These are just a few of the key appropriations in the 800-page House budget. If you would like to view the document in its entirety, it can be pulled up online at www.scstatehouse.gov
The end of March was also accompanied by the end of the filing period. After the litigated fiasco of two years ago, I am happy to say that filing for office proceeded without a hitch. Primaries will take place on June 10 and the general election is slated for November 4. The State Senate is not up for election this time around, but the governor and other state constitutional officers, both U.S. senators, the U.S House of Representatives and the S.C. House of Representatives will be on the ballot. (As an aside, I did file to run again for the S.C. House of Representatives and appreciate your continued confidence and support.)
More recently, we spent a number of very long days on the floor clearing legislation from the House calendar before the May 1 “Crossover Deadline” – which is essentially the day all legislation must reach the Senate to be considered during this session.
Here are a few of the significant items we considered this week:
The House Education and Public Works Committee approved legislation that removes South Carolina from the group of states developing the Common Core standards.
We approved legislation that would allow the state to oversee county election commissions that don't follow the law. It sounds strange, but applying some degree of uniformity within our 46 counties is essential to conducting consistent elections.
The House approved a statewide ban on texting while driving. The penalty is essentially the same as for not wearing a seat belt. Aside from the obvious need to address this dangerous practice, the fact that multiple municipalities have begun approving differing texting bans created the need for a uniform statewide regulation.
Emma's Law is now an actual law. This bill is a critical step toward stopping repeat DUI offenders.
When the House returns after the Easter break, major legislation like the Ethics Reform Act, the College of Charleston/MUSC Reform bill and the return of the state budget await. It will be an active, and hopefully productive, final few weeks. I look forward to updating you on the results.
Thank you for the opportunity to represent you.
Rep. Jim Merrill is the former Majority Leader of the S.C. House of Representatives and represents District 99 – Hanahan, Daniel Island, Cainhoy, Goose Creek and Mount Pleasant.