Originally created 01/19/99

Hodges' budget to focus on education spending



COLUMBIA -- One thing will be missing when new Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges lays out his program for legislators in Wednesday night's State of the State speech -- the tax cuts that were the hallmark of 12 years of Republican rule.

Instead, Mr. Hodges' priority will be spending on education. "We'll lay out a plan for educational spending that will set the standard for what we want to do this year," the new governor said.

Former Republican Govs. Carroll Campbell and David Beasley advocated tax cuts as well as education spending. Mr. Beasley proudly noted during his unsuccessful re-election attempt that taxes had been cut by $1 billion during his term, and Mr. Hodges floated the idea at one point of eliminating all $65 million in income taxes on senior citizens.

"The governor intends to work toward the senior tax cut he talked about in the campaign," Hodges spokeswoman Nina Brook said.

However, she said, "Governor Hodges believes there was a clear message in November's election that people would rather see more resources devoted to the schools than general tax cuts."

A legislative tax study committee also has suggested eliminating the income tax on senior citizens, something other states with an income tax have done.

Mr. Beasley never could persuade the Legislature to do that but did get the income exclusion raised to $11,500 from $10,000. In his final executive budget sent to lawmakers last week, he proposed raising that to $15,000, which would cost $5.7 million in the fiscal year beginning June 30.

Mr. Hodges does not agree with Mr. Beasley's suggestion that families with children as old as 10 be given a tax exemption. The current age limit is 5, and adding 250,000 more children would cost the state $41 million. Mr. Hodges "expects to look to putting that money to education," Ms. Brook said.

Ms. Brook said Mr. Hodges would propose "hundreds of millions" in new spending on education. Mr. Beasley suggested $140 million.

Mr. Hodges and his staff refused to give specifics. Expected to be included in his proposal will be about $20 million to start a preschool program similar to North Carolina's Smart Start.

Smart Start promotes partnerships among businesses, nonprofit organizations and churches to improve the lives of preschoolers, especially in rural areas. It also subsidizes child-care programs so parents can work and provides incentives for people who run illegal day-care centers out of their homes to get their licenses.

Mr. Beasley also proposed spending an additional $30 million to reduce first-grade class sizes to 15 students per teacher. That would require 927 new teachers.

"Hodges also may differ some with the details of the class-size reduction but considers the effort to be a positive development," Ms. Brook said.