S.C. lawmakers pressed to find money for coronavirus response

March 17, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

When lawmakers return this week to debate how to pay for the state’s emergency coronavirus response, they will have to decide where exactly to get the money.

In a letter Thursday to House and Senate leaders, Gov. Henry McMaster requested that lawmakers provide the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) up to $45 million to help the agency “identify and secure – in advance – the necessary resources, equipment and personnel to successfully address their contingencies.”

McMaster recommended that the $45 million be deducted from a small, one-time tax cut next year for S.C. taxpayers in the form of a credit, proposed by the House as part of its $32.3 billion state budget version for fiscal 2020-21, which starts July 1.

Under the House spending plan, the tax credit – $100 per taxpayer is proposed with other funding requests that would be covered with $945.5 million in actual and projected nonrecurring revenues, part of an estimated total $1.8 billion-plus surplus for next fiscal year.

The Nerve earlier this month identified more than $51 million in special projects or programs proposed by House leaders and other members – known as earmarks – though the state agencies that the mainly nonrecurring revenues would flow through didn’t formally request the additional funds.

In the face of the coronavirus, previously projected surpluses are less certain for next fiscal year, putting lawmakers in a position to look for other revenues to fund DHEC’s response.

State records show that DHEC ended last fiscal year with a $105.8 million surplus in “other’ funds, with year-end reserves in that category averaging nearly $97 million in each of the previous four fiscal years. As of Monday, DHEC had a nearly $213.3 million cash balance in other funds, which represented more than 96% of its total other-fund appropriation for this fiscal year, according to state comptroller general and budget records.

DHEC’s total budget for this fiscal year, which includes state, federal and other funds, is $651.9 million. For fiscal 2021, the total budget would be $670.3 million under the House spending plan, which is now in the Senate.

Included in the proposed DHEC budget is $116 million for the agency’s infectious-disease prevention section. Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced it was awarding $8.9 million to South Carolina to combat coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

In a letter Monday to Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, DHEC director Rick Toomey said that “COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving situation,” noting the “exact costs will depend on the containment and mitigation response efforts we will need to curtail the impact of the disease on our state, as well as direction from the Federal level (CDC, etc.).”

On Monday, DHEC reported the state’s first coronavirus-related death – an elderly patient who was a resident at a Lexington Medical Center nursing facility.

In his letter to Leatherman, Toomey gave the following the breakdown of the requested additional $45 million:

  • $14.8 million: “Personal protective equipment” (PPE) for DHEC workers to “prevent spread of infection.”
  • $14.5 million: Additional DHEC staffing to support “disease surveillance and contact investigation, laboratory testing, and information phone lines.”
  • $5.2 million: “Staff support,” including “technology, lab supplies and reagents (substances used to cause chemical reactions), travel, and facility cleaning.”
  • $5 million: “Contingency” costs – a built-in approximately “10% for unanticipated costs or changing assumptions based on disease spread.”
  • $2.5 million: “Education campaign” – support for “TV/Radio airtime and printed materials.”
  • $1.7 million: Cost to “quarantine and support indigent patients.”
  • $1.3 million: Cost to “courier lab samples and distribution of items from the Strategic National Stockpile.”

The Senate is scheduled this afternoon to consider the funding request. The House, which earlier decided to take a spring break this week, is set to return on Thursday.

Hannah Hill, senior policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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