Senators pass budget, look to car, boat fees to fix gaps

The Senate Finance Committee meets Thursday
The Senate Finance Committee meets Thursday

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — State Senate budget writers are looking to crack down on tax scofflaws and open wallets of drivers, hunters, anglers and boat owners with nearly $5 billion budget proposal. Those proposals are among the first that would reach directly into consumer pocketbooks as legislators scramble for cash.

The Senate Finance Committee Thursday approved the spending plan and agreed to send it to the floor for debatem while providing few details of how deeply they'll need cut spending at state agencies. They're leaving that to committee staff to work on over the weekend.

But the plan they did approve includes putting more than $2 million into the Department of Revenues tax law enforcement operations to generate $50 million.

They also agreed to a $12 increase in biennial registration fees for cars, a $5 fee increase for all boats and watercraft and raising the price of fishing and hunting licenses by $2.

The car licensing fee would raise the every-two-year cost of keeping a car licensed to $36. State Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican, said the so-called "public safety service charge" would generate $22.5 million.

Fair said the money would be used mostly for the Highway Patrol trooper force. Those ranks have fallen from more than 1,000 a couple of years ago to around 850. Without the money, they'd fall to under 700. But Fair said the extra cash will raise the force back toward 1,000.

The fishing and hunting measure would raise about $1.8 million and most of that money would go to law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, the license increase for watercraft would generate around $900,000.

Because the fees are included in the proposed budget, they wouldn't be permanent. Fair, for instance, said the people renewing their two-year car registrations in July 2010 might pay the higher fee, but those in 2011 wouldn't unless the Legislature approved them again. It is unclear if that will happen.

The fees have far to go before pinching wallets and a handful of senators grumbled about them Thursday night. "It's not over yet. The fat lady hasn't sung yet," said Sen. Greg Ryberg, an Aiken Republican.

Fair doesn't think the state's drivers, hunters and boat owners are being asked to pay too much, particularly when it comes to keeping highways safe and protected by troopers. "We're not going too far," Fair said. "Whatever fee we're trying to raise is for core services."

Thursday's late night scramble was set in motion Wednesday with a double dose of disappearing dollars. The state Board of Economic Advisors told budget writers they would have $60 million less to work. And the state's Medicaid agency said it was $67 million short of what it needed to cover soaring enrollment of poor children driven by parents losing jobs and becoming financially eligible for the program.

[Click to read: Accounting error causes dispute between state agencies]

Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman told his committee members to come up with plans to close that $126 million gap as a state budget that two years ago was more than $7 billion dipped below $5 billion.

Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, proposed saving $50 million by not covering increases premium costs for state workers. But Leatherman said that proposal would likely go nowhere.

The debate also involves policy. On Thursday, Leatherman's committee rejected a House budget provision approved last month in an all-night session that would have ended state health insurance plan coverage for abortions when state workers or their family members were victims of rape or incest. The House agreed to only allow abortions needed to protect the health of a woman.

[Click to read:Senators restore abortion coverage for rape]

The measure the Senate will send to the floor for debate in two weeks will leave the state's abortion policy the same as it has been for years and matching federal law.

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