Originally created 01/18/01

Hodges calls for parties to cooperate

COLUMBIA - Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges wants a Legislature dominated by Republicans in both chambers to play bipartisan ball with him during South Carolina's worst budget crunch in years, he said Wednesday in his annual State of the State message.

The baseball-themed message stressing teamwork did not strike out with the majority party but it was far from a grand slam.

The speech, laced with repeated calls to "step up to the plate" and "take our best swing," was interrupted by applause 36 times. But the interruptions were for broad principles, not the small details, which included more than $1 billion in new spending despite hard times.

Lawmakers in both parties said they agree with the governor that the state's top priority is education, long substandard in South Carolina.

And they applauded wildly at the news that college-entrance test scores have increased 15 percent in the two years that the "education governor" has been in office and the education-minded Legislature has supported reforms.

That makes South Carolina first in the nation in improved scores on the SAT, Mr. Hodges said, and rewarding quality instructors has increased the number of nationally certified teachers more than 800 percent, from 39 to 370, making the state fourth in that realm.

But the governor faces sharp disagreement on how to deal with the sour economy and how much other state agencies should be slashed while education funding grows.

With revenues expected to fall up to $500 million short of earlier projections, Mr. Hodges is calling for a 15 percent downsizing in state government, except for education programs.

His proposals would cost 3,500 state workers their jobs while giving teachers a $2,000 raise, spending $54 million to improve low-performing schools, and putting $15 million toward preserving South Carolina's historic sites, green spaces and wildlife habitats.

Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell of Charleston, elected when Republicans regained control in that chamber for the first time in modern history, put it bluntly: "We are not going to balance the budget on the backs of state employees. We simply won't do it."

House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, said some essential state services would be crippled by an across-the-board cut, and "it's not going to happen."

And in the official GOP response, House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, R-Columbia, said, "Our state is facing a budget crisis. New spending as the governor proposes is simply out of the question."

The GOP will not support an across-the-board cut in government spending, despite a party philosophy that government is too big and too expensive, he said.

"We cannot support the governor's call for a 15 percent across-the-board cut that merely allows him to fund new projects, no matter how worthy they may sound."

Some of the governor's opposition is centered on the state lottery that voters approved last fall to help pay for education.

Mr. Hodges wants to spend much of the proceeds on free technical education and college scholarships, while many lawmakers want those dollars concentrated on kindergarten and the lower grades, where lifelong learning patterns are established.

The lottery, which was the linchpin of Mr. Hodges' winning campaign two years ago, is one area where the governor did not mince words. It's also an area where his legislative aims are expected to run into trouble.

"I'm particularly proud of the one pitch that we hit out of the park," he said. "We kept our promise to give the people of South Carolina a chance to vote on an education lottery. And the people responded with a remarkable landslide endorsement that transcended racial and party lines....

"Yet some members of the Legislature haven't heard this message," Mr. Hodges said, citing claims that some lawmakers will balk at ratifying the constitutional amendment that 700,000 voters approved so a lottery would be legal.

"Well, let me issue a clear warning tonight. The people of South Carolina have demanded an education lottery. The people of South Carolina deserve an education lottery. The people of South Carolina will get an education lottery."

And, he said, what they voted for was his plan for spending the money it generates. He repeated the key features of his proposal. No one clapped.

The governor wants enabling legislation passed quickly, and the Republican majority is suggesting speed could be a mistake.

These are other key points in the 4,400-word address:

Education: Mr. Hodges wants to replace old school buses. He wants to continue his First Steps program to help children get ready for "real school" - it had tough sledding in the Legislature last year - and he wants to find the money to fund the Education Accountability Act, which grades schools. It will take $54 million to bring the borderline facilities up to standard.

Budget: He wants "a comprehensive budget reform package that outlaws spending surplus money on recurring expenditures."

"I want state government to be run like a business, with our scarce tax dollars devoted to our core priorities - education, health care, safe communities and targeted tax relief."

Taxes: He wants a temporary penny reduction in food taxes made permanent, at a cost of $25 million. And he wants a $50,000 homestead exemption for older residents continued.

Health care: He wants to use South Carolina's share of a settlement with tobacco companies used for preventing heart attacks, strokes and diabetes, illnesses that disproportionately affect South Carolinians, especially blacks. And he wants to continue his SilverCard prescription drug discounts for senior citizens.

Safety: He wants more troopers on the roads, a mandatory seat-belt law and a midnight curfew for teen-age drivers. He also wants the Legislature to take a strong initiative against domestic violence. South Carolina leads the nation in women who are killed by abusers.

Rural development: He wants legislation to protect open spaces and farmlands while helping rural areas get their fair share of jobs.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.


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