SC General Assembly faces tough issues when resuming in January

By Drew Stewart - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Education, property taxes, and the state's health system are issues that are going to be hot topics when lawmakers return to work.

When the General Assembly comes back in January, there won't be much of a way to decorate the budget situation. Budget writers are working with about $800 million dollars less than they need to fully fund the state government.

Federal stimulus dollars passed by the Obama administration in 2009 are in effect gone, so South Carolina is going to have a lot of trouble funding public services, like education.

Money for state Medicaid is drying up as well. Uvettte Pope-Rogers depends on Medicaid funding for her daughter's therapy. Nyla was debilitated by a stroke as an infant. "She wasn't aware of her hand after she had the stroke," said Pope-Rogers, "So after the therapy, she's using it as a helper hand."

"The families are the ones that suffer," stated Dawn Darby, who operates a clinic called the Therapy Place. It's where Nyla goes for treatment.

State Medicaid funding alone is facing a $228 million dollar shortfall. Darby says children, like Nyla, won't get as much therapy as they need to make progress because of the expense involved. Nyla gets three hours of therapy per week at the current funding level. "A child would have a very hard time experiencing any benefit with that low amount of therapy," explained Darby.

State Senator Darrell Jackson is a Democrat who serves Richland County. "With that kind of shortfall, the question becomes how bad will it be?" expressed Jackson.

Senate Majority Leader, Harvey Peeler, said regardless of how bad the state's budget situation is, raising taxes is not an option while South Carolinians recover from the recession. "We're not looking forward to some of the tough decisions we're going to have to make as far as the budget is concerned," claimed Peeler, "There's been some talk about raising taxes. I think that's a non-starter. It's all about jobs, jobs and education. Anything with a price tag on it, I think it's dead on arrival"

Both senators serve on a special committee looking at ways to reform education in South Carolina. They met on December 15 and will meet again to begin drafting legislation that will be introduced when the full session begins next month.

Property tax reform is also a hot item under the copper dome this winter and spring. Lawmakers will be discussing how to reform Act 388 of 2007. That bill enacted a statewide penny sales tax to reduce property taxes on homeowners, but the law came with many unintended problems.

Most of the problems are limits on how much revenue towns counties and school districts can raise in tax revenue and restrictions on the ways those political subdivisions can govern themselves. It can mean cuts in public services. So it's now up to lawmakers to reform the act. "I think if we are going to get our fiscal house in order, then Act 388 has to be addressed," said Jackson.

Another problem from Act 388 are inequities in real estate values on similar properties, but critics - like Peeler - said an outright repeal of the act would raise taxes on homeowners. That's unlikely to happen in the Republican controlled General Assembly. "Tweaking it maybe, but repealing it?" questioned Peeler, "I don't see us raising taxes on owner occupied homes." Peeler said anyone who thinks taxes will be raised this year will be left out in the cold.

The 119th session of the General Assembly begins January 11th.

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