Originally created 03/06/03

House Democrats feel shortchanged in budget



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- House Democrats will have to scramble to put their two cents into the state budget that landed on their desks this week.

The 516-page bill detailing how the state will spend $5.1 billion cuts some agency funding by more than 9 percent, and the chairman of the budget-writing committee told House members that any proposed changes should be prepared before debate begins next Tuesday.

But House Democrats said a week simply isn't enough time to study the bill and craft amendments.

The GOP-dominated House Ways and Means Committee didn't do enough on the budget before bringing it to the floor, House Minority Leader James Smith, D-Columbia, said.

"They need more time to examine state government, to do a better job in finding ways restructure revenues and examine programs and agencies," Smith said. "They need to do a better job in crafting a budget before it gets to the floor."

Lawmakers are expected to offer budget changes to increase taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline and eliminate some sales tax exemptions. At the same time, most expect a rush of amendments to move $15 million earmarked for teacher pay into other programs.

"When we get to the floor, we default to asking everybody to vote against amendments because we're afraid of the ramifications it may have that we overlook at that moment," Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bobby Harrell said. "Decisions made in a hurry like that frequently turn out to be bad decisions."

Also, the agency responsible for actually writing up the proposed changes to the budget bill, the Legislative Council, is down eight staff members because of hiring freezes. That will make getting amendments drafted more difficult, Harrell said.

But Smith said House Democrats, who for years have complained that their spending priorities have been ignored, cannot possibly digest the budget and come up with meaningful changes in less than a week.

The bill was put on their desks Tuesday and a briefing was held Wednesday afternoon. "What are we racing against?" Smith asked. "We ought to be given enough time to go through that and take it in."

Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Jerry Govan said this year, more than others, lawmakers should have more time and be more deliberate in writing the budget.

"It's an extremely tight schedule," Govan, D-Orangeburg, said of Harrell's timetable. "It's absurd that we create some arbitrary limitation to put together your amendment and give it to staff."

On the Net:

State budget: http://www.scstatehouse.net/html-pages/budget.htm