Originally created 03/27/06

Budget battle is culminating



COLUMBIA - Rep. Skipper Perry finally knows the Macarena.

He learned it recently from a few ladies at Aiken County's Tri-Development Center for the disabled.

Next week, he might have a $9.2 million "thank you" to give them.

Mr. Perry lobbied successfully to get his main objective - more beds for South Carolina's disabled residents - ranked at the top of the House Ways and Means Committee's list of funding priorities, if the House approves anything beyond a basic budget.

"I've learned not to get greedy," said Mr. Perry, R-Aiken. "Just concentrate on one or two items."

Today, the House starts a week of budget talks, culminating in the passage of the main appropriations bill, which includes a 4.8 percent cap on new spending, with exemptions for education funding and Medicaid.

Funding for beds for the disabled is part of the supplemental appropriations bill that, like the Capital Reserve Fund spending bill, will be voted on separately from the main appropriations bill.

Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Greenville, said his committee split the budget into three separate bills this year to allow members who want to stick with a spending cap to vote for the main budget bill, but against additional spending.

Included in the main appropriations bill is nearly $65 million to repay the Barnwell Extended Maintenance Care Fund, one of dozens of trust funds lawmakers borrowed from several years ago when the economy took a downturn.

With the economy improving, the Legislature has pledged $98.6 million to repay the funds.

The Barnwell fund is intended to pay for the maintenance of Chem-Nuclear's low-level nuclear waste site once it closes.

"Our concern has been, yes, the fund needs to be whole," said Deborah Ogilvie, Chem-Nuclear's public information director. "We felt that it would eventually be whole, but actually sooner is better than later because the fund really grows on the interest."

Also in the budget proposal: $10 million for the University of South Carolina Aiken and base funding for technical schools.

Mr. Perry said he'd like to see more. But Deidre Martin, the university's vice president for advancement, said the local delegation has been supportive of the campus.

Her main concern is that the $599,237 appropriation for "parity" money isn't recurring funding, meaning the university will have to find parity funds again next year.

The parity funding is set aside, specifically, to ensure that growing campuses, such as Aiken's, have enough money to afford their expanding population, she said.

Lawmakers "want to be fair, and that really is just a way to make sure that all the colleges are getting" fair funding, she said.

Ms. Martin said like all of the USC campuses, Aiken is committed to a single-digit tuition increase next year - so a provision in the budget to cap tuition increases at a specific level shouldn't be a problem.

However, "we don't really agree with the principle of the Legislature setting tuition caps," she said.

Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, also has said Midland Valley High School in Langley would get a portion of the $14.8 million directed at training students who do not intend to go to college.

Aiken is just like anywhere else, Mr. Perry said, in that if local House members hope to bring home the bacon, they'll need the help of their friends.

Mr. Perry said he fought for years to get more beds for the disabled - testifying about the issue, finding funding, searching for other lawmakers interested in the issue - and the effort involved hundreds of people.

That's why it's hard for freshman lawmakers to accomplish much, he said.

"Trust and relationships are extremely important," he said.

But, Mr. Perry added, you have to start with a good idea.

"They can smell just political pork 100 miles away."

Reach Kirsten Singleton at (803) 414-6611 or kirsten.singleton@morris.com.

WHAT'S NEXT

If the South Carolina House of Representatives doesn't pass a budget by Friday, lawmakers must extend the legislative session by one day in June for every day they miss the budget deadline.