COLUMBIA - Technical colleges, forest firefighters, school bus fuel and arts programs were among items spared the budget ax as the South Carolina House wrapped up a nearly 15-hour debate on Gov. Mark Sanford's budget vetoes early Thursday.
Items that did not survive will lead to more cuts at state agencies and hundreds of job losses.
The term-limited Sanford praised legislators for handing him a successful veto session in his last chance to influence state spending, saying the savings will help fill the fiscal hole next year, when the federal stimulus money runs out. Legislators cut roughly $50 million from the state's nearly $5 billion spending plan, which was already $2 billion less than two years ago. They also agreed to ax the entire, $214 million section to be paid with money that still needs congressional approval, which largely goes to Medicaid but includes funds for meals for homebound elderly, AIDS prescription assistance, cancer screening and HIV prevention.
"What we've done today is create more unemployment in South Carolina. There are people who came to work this morning who will find out tomorrow they no longer have a job," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. "Across the board, people are going to be hurting."
Items eliminated include research programs designed to create jobs, such as universities' nanotechnology, hydrogen fuel cell, and transportation research and money to help entrepreneurs succeed.
"The thing that brings you out of a recession is small business," said Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, as he successfully argued to save $525,000 for a program that provides technical and management assistance to small businesses. If legislators get stuck in a mentality to keep cutting no matter what, he said, "we're going to wind up poor, barefooted, broke and behind Mississippi."
The agency that runs much of the state's bureaucracy was hit with $29 million in cuts. They will require the state Budget and Control Board, which Sanford has fought for years, to lay off 180 workers, close offices that make budget projections and monitor spending, and put in limbo how state workers and vendors will be paid, leaving the state open to lawsuits, said executive director Frank Fusco.
"If you want to restructure the agency, this is not the way to do it," House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper said before the vote.
Democrats railed against the decimation of the state's consumer protection agency, and programs to help rural areas.
House leaders faulted each other for the stripping of an already tough budget.
While House Minority Leader Harry Ott said Republicans made an irresponsible budget worse, House Speaker Bobby Harrell blamed Democrats for not being willing to vote for the budget. Two weeks ago, the budget passed on a party-line vote, with Democrats saying it shirked basic health and education responsibilities. Sanford said he considered vetoing the entire budget, as he did in 2006. That one veto could have been overridden, leaving the budget intact, Harrell said, but Democrats were hoping to force legislators to rewrite the budget. So Harrell said he told the governor the GOP-controlled House would uphold many of his vetoes, if he'd take the line-item approach.
The overturned vetoes are expected to be taken up Thursday by the Senate, where a two-thirds majority must approve an override.
The House upheld a veto to cut a job-training program for inmates, even though some Republicans argued the program reduces recidivism and will save money long-term.
But legislators nearly unanimously overrode vetoes to cut $4 million from the state's technical colleges. Some lawmakers said it was madness to eliminate money to run the schools that businesses rely on and that are vital as jobless workers seek training.
"Don't eliminate technical education in this state," said Rep. Ken Kennedy, D-Greeleyville. "This whole thing doesn't make any sense!"
The House saved $4.5 million Sanford wanted cut from the Department of Health and Environmental Control that would have decimated the agency's operations, laying off 179 workers. It also saved the agency $3.2 million that could have ended various health programs, including childhood immunizations, restaurant and septic tank inspections, and rabies and tuberculosis control.
But legislators upheld a $7.4 million cut to the agency that some warned would put water quality and other environmental programs at risk.
Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, successfully argued to spare the Forestry Commission, already down by 100 employees. Two cuts tallying $1.6 million would have laid off 30 additional workers and cut basics such as fuel and insurance. He said he feared if a fire similar to last year's North Myrtle Beach wildfire, which destroyed 76 homes and charred 31 square miles, happened after the cuts, the destruction would be much worse.
"We've got to give our firefighters everything they need to protect us," said Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens.
Other items spared included $900,000 to fuel school buses; $5 million for ETV, the state's educational television and radio network, to pay for basics like buildings and electricity; $5 million for public libraries that could have resulted in libraries ending Internet access or shuttering; and $1.6 million to keep open the State Museum.
Tensions flared after legislators overrode vetoes to save Clemson University agricultural programs that include livestock disease inspections, but upheld a veto of an economic development program through South Carolina State University, the state's historically black public college. Black legislators said they were baffled and concerned by the difference in the votes.
Ott and other legislators of both parties successfully argued for a re-do of the vote, which was then overridden.
Also Wednesday, the House and Senate approved a compromise economic incentives bill that dropped the idea of doing away with corporate incomes taxes over 10 years - a provision House Republicans wanted. House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham said GOP leaders understand that removing the state's third-largest source of revenue is not possible now.