Originally created 12/13/04

Budget woes limit S.C. legislature's plans



AIKEN - South Carolina lawmakers pre-filed 223 bills last week in anticipation of the state's 116th General Assembly, which starts Jan. 11.

And although many of the bills ambitiously tackle issues including government re-structuring and income tax reduction, the state's weakened economic status still will dominate part of the session, some lawmakers said.

"Obviously, it's not what we'd like it to be," said Rep. Roland Smith, a Langley Republican who is the chairman of the Aiken County legislative delegation.

The state's Board of Economic Advisors projected in November that lawmakers would have a surplus of about $350 million to fund state government. But that won't meet the existing $500 million shortfall in basic health care and education needs, lawmakers warn.

Those aren't the only agencies going without, and the surplus is nothing to get excited about, said Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater.

"I think you better go back and look at all the cuts you've made and find a remedy" before you get excited about the projected surplus, he told Mr. Smith and other Aiken County lawmakers at a Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce meeting last week.

The state hasn't had excess revenue since 2001, and lawmakers have slowly whittled away the budgets of state agencies over time.

The University of South Carolina Aiken, for example, used to receive about 80 percent of its funding from the state, Chancellor Tom Hallman told Mr. Moore at the meeting. It gets less than half that from state coffers now, he said.

Despite heading into yet another session faced with financial constraints, lawmakers say they're eager to tackle leftover business and move on.

Last year's deficit of more than $300 million didn't slow them. The House and Senate passed 237 bills, according to the General Assembly's Legislative Council.

Lawmakers again will address tort reform. The House passed a bill last year that would cap financial rewards to claimants, but the Senate didn't sign off on it.

Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell and Gov. Mark Sanford are pushing to reform Senate rules, which currently allow one member to filibuster and hold up legislation.

Mr. Moore and Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, were divided on the issue.

Former governors passed important legislation by working with the Legislature and ironing out their differences, Mr. Moore said, so a rules change might not make things better.

"It's not the rules of the Senate," he said. "It's the senators themselves."

Still, it's not right that "one individual can hold up the will of the majority," Mr. Ryberg countered.

"I think we have become a little dysfunctional," said Mr. Ryberg, who also wants to reform the state's retirement system, which he says is in danger of running out of money.

He also advocated giving the governor power to appoint the state's secretaries of agriculture, state and education, constitutional offices that currently are filled by election.

And somewhere along the line lawmakers need to start restoring the millions of dollars they've borrowed during hard times, Rep. Robert "Skipper" Perry said.

"We did a lot of robbing," he said.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.