Originally created 01/14/02

Hodges to voice hope for budget



COLUMBIA - Gov. Jim Hodges will have to assure South Carolinians he can fix a second year of budget problems when he gives his State of the State address this week, political experts say.

But, they say, the Democratic governor should shy away from partisan comments during his 30-minute speech before the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Mr. Hodges is seeking re-election in the fall.

After the governor speaks, Senate Majority Leader Hugh Leatherman of Florence, a frequent critic of Mr. Hodges' spending plans, will deliver the GOP response. Mr. Leatherman did not return calls seeking comment on his speech.

Mr. Hodges' spokesman Jay Reiff said the governor also will address security, health care, education and economic development.

"The general theme of the State of the State will be that even in tough economic times, we need to still make progress and that this current, temporary budget crunch should be seen as an opportunity and not as an obstacle," Mr. Reiff said.

That's the kind of theme and flavor expected by political science professors Neal Thigpen at Francis Marion University, Danielle Vinson at Furman University and Blease Graham at the University of South Carolina.

"Hodges usually gives a reasonably upbeat speech," Mr. Thigpen said. "He's always had the demeanor of a PTA president - optimistic."

"This is his opportunity to explain to the public what he wants to do given the current situation and why he thinks this is the best way to do it," Ms. Vinson said. "He can do that in positive ways by focusing on positive things that we are going to be doing."

"It would be horrible for him to bring an unnecessary partisan tone to the occasion," Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Reiff said Mr. Hodges will emphasize the state working together, particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It's a tough budget speech for Mr. Hodges, who was blasted last week for his spending plans by Mr. Leatherman and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

The two Republicans said the Democratic governor wasn't offering a serious plan to deal with the state's budget problems, which include a $500 million gap between spending needs and revenues in the budget year beginning July 1.

Mr. Hodges' plan would fix that by raiding trust and reserve accounts of $212 million and delegating oversight for $150 million to the Budget and Control Board, run by Mr. Hodges' former top budget aide.

"He's got to expand on it and come off so it doesn't look like blue smoke and mirrors," Mr. Thigpen said.

"This funding plan, in order to deal with these shortfalls, has the potential to become controversial," Mr. Graham said. "Anything he can do to put that in context and explain it to the Legislature ... will be important." Mr. Hodges can't come off looking like he's playing "a Washington shell game in terms of financing government," he said.

Though Mr. Hodges is expected to touch on accomplishments in education, a prescription drug program for seniors and a new state lottery, he'll likely move quickly to other areas.

"Most of the speech will focus on moving forward," Mr. Reiff said. It will emphasize that "any state can make progress in good times. It's the mark of a great state to make progress in the bad times."

This year's speech will be strikingly different from last year's in one way.

Mr. Hodges' speech last year included a flurry of baseball metaphors and ended with his giving baseball bats to House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, and Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler.

"Ow, that was an awful gimmick," Ms. Vinson said. Mr. Reiff said the sports lingo is benched this year.