SC budget officials order 3 percent cut by agencies

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Economic worries prompted South Carolina's budget board Tuesday to order all state agencies to cut their spending by 3 percent.

The 3-2 vote by the state Budget and Control Board means state agencies must trim their budget plans by $188 million, with the state Education Department taking the largest hit of $73.3 million.

Exactly how those cuts will affect local schools is yet to be determined. It could mean increased class sizes as districts can't afford to fill remaining vacancies for the coming school year.

State Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, who cast a "no" vote, had asked instead for a 1 percent cut, calling 3 percent too extreme based on current predictions on the state's 2008-09 collections. But the state treasurer and the board's two legislators said they don't foresee the economy improving, and a large cut now is better than piecemeal cuts throughout the year.

"If we're going to make cuts, it needs to be done early rather than late," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

Gov. Mark Sanford wanted the money set aside, and asked that lawmakers return to Columbia to make targeted spending reductions. Across-the-board cuts treat all agencies equally. He said that's unfair to agencies that use their money wisely.

"It really penalizes hardworking folks," he said.

Several state agencies said last week that they already have frozen hiring. Those include the Public Safety and Education departments.

Later this week, the board could decide to increase health insurance premiums for state employees who smoke. The Libertarian-leaning Sanford said that while he supports smokers' freedom to endanger their health, their nonsmoking co-workers shouldn't have to pay for their bad health care decisions.

The board postponed a vote until Friday, while the governor's office compiles health care statistics.


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