South Carolina state budget negotiations resume

Disagreements likely on fees, abortion limits

COLUMBIA --- A conference committee began negotiating a final version of a nearly $5 billion state spending plan Wednesday. Disagreements loomed on fees the Senate tacked on its budget and on tougher limits on abortions for state workers and their families through the state health insurance plan.


The panel met for a little more than an hour, but didn't address the large sticking points.

The abortion issue arose in March as House Republicans won an all-night fight to limit abortions covered by the state health insurance to only instances involving the health of the mother, eliminating coverage for abortions sought by victims of rape or incest.

Taxpayer funding for abortions became a huge political issue in the midst of the federal debate on a national health care overhaul.

Senate Minority Leader John Land, D-Manning, is on the budget conference committee and expects the House's effort will ultimately fail. Agreements on differences require two votes each from the House and Senate conferees. "They don't have two votes," Land said, referring to the senators on the conference committee.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont, said if that happens, some House members might not vote for the final budget.

The fees issue has wider affect on health and social welfare programs. The Senate counted on more than $50 million in fees to patch together their budget. That included more than $24 million generated from increased civil court filing costs. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said layoffs of court workers would be needed without the money.

More than $22.5 million was generated by a new public safety fee on vehicles and it would pay for Highway Patrol officers, Cooper said.

Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed the court fees, arguing they would price courts out of reach of some people and that legislators should find a better way to pay for a critical function of state government. The House couldn't muster the votes needed to override the veto. A second attempt is expected today and Cooper said that will likely fail.

Because House members rejected the fees, the House's final version of the budget cut spending: at least $5.6 million from AIDS prevention and treatment programs; $4 million from colorectal, breast and cervical cancer screening; $1.7 million from smoking cessation; and $1 million from grants to rural hospitals.

The largest single cut was for the Department of Social Services, which expected $18.4 million to cover changes made in federal welfare program funding. The proposal imposes a strict new limit of three Medicaid prescription drugs to save $10.7 million.

Cooper said he hopes final agreements can be reached on the proposal today.

If that happens, the spending plan could be on Sanford's desk next week.