Senate to Take Up Remaining Budget Vetoes

June 28, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveAfter giving itself a $4 million budget raise two weeks ago, the S.C. Senate returns Tuesday to consider overriding 27 budget vetoes by Gov. Mark Sanford – mostly one-time money totaling nearly $15 million.

Officials at several state agencies told The Nerve last week that although they don’t like taking non-recurring money for recurring programs – known as annualizations –  the alternative would be far worse given the current budget crisis.

“We have serious problems now,” said William Bilton, executive director of the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination, which faces a $1.5 million budget shortfall if the Senate doesn’t override two of the vetoes. “But I would rather have serious problems with $1.5 million in non-recurring money than have serious problems without $1.5 million in non-recurring money.”

The Senate on June 17 overrode 29 of Sanford’s budget vetoes; the 27 vetoes to be taken up Tuesday are the remaining items sent over by the House two weeks ago.  A veto can be overridden only with a two-thirds vote by each chamber.

The House sustained 51 other vetoes, which the Senate cannot consider.  Sanford earlier this month announced 107 vetoes totaling about $314 million in cuts to the state’s 2010-11 budget, including about $214 million in enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) money earmarked mostly for Medicaid programs. The House sustained the FMAP veto and another veto of the next-biggest ticket item – the $25.2 million general fund operating budget of the Budget and Control Board.

But the House overrode Sanford’s veto of a $3 million general fund increase for the Senate chamber, and another veto of $1 million for the Senate for reapportionment, or the redrawing of legislative district lines. The Senate overwhelmingly signed off on the $4 million increase, giving the chamber its largest ratified budget – $13.3 million – in at least the past 12 years, records show.

The $1 million for reapportionment, designated in a budget proviso, theoretically would come out of $96 million in extra tax collections by the S.C. Department of Revenue.  Seventeen of Sanford’s 107 vetoes – including 11 totaling about $8 million to be considered by the Senate on Tuesday – involve those additional collections.

Sanford in his veto message said he has seen “no evidence” that the Department of Revenue will collect the projected $96 million in extra tax collections – double the current collection rate.

“Overall, our vetoes of these items will reduce expenditures of increased enforcement collections by over $14 million and will help ensure that state agencies do not rely on these funds that may never be available,” he wrote.

Eleven other vetoes to be taken up Tuesday by the Senate deal with a total of about $6.7 million in federal stimulus dollars designated to cover general fund budget shortfalls.  The S.C. Supreme Court last year ruled that Sanford had to accept the total approximate $700 million in stimulus funds, which would be spread over two budget years,  for that purpose; he said he would accept the money only if could be used to pay down an equal amount of state debt.

In vetoing 16 budget items involving those funds, Sanford said that money should be “redirected” to the state Medicaid program, according to his veto message earlier this month.

The S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination, which provides funding to solicitors in the state’s 16 judicial circuits, would lose $500,000 in federal stimulus dollars and another $1 million in extra state tax collection revenue if the Senate on Tuesday sustains two of Sanford’s vetoes.

Bilton told The Nerve last week that the $1.5 million is designated as per-capita money for prosecutors and their support staffs statewide.  The Legislature approved about $8.7 million in general funds for the agency for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which starts July 1, down about $1.6 million, or 15 percent, from the ratified budget at the start of this fiscal year.

Bilton said the requested $1.5 million doesn’t make up for the loss over the past several years of more than $3 million to prosecute first-offense criminal domestic violence and driving-under-the-influence cases in magistrate courts, or nearly $2.3 million that was cut for victims’ assistance programs statewide. He also said prosecutors will have to deal with a sentencing reform bill passed by the Legislature this year.

“It’s not a one-legged stool,” Bilton said. “We need to fund the prosecutors and the defense while we’re funding the judiciary.”

The Legislature agreed to give the S.C. Judicial Department, which doesn’t provide money to prosecutors, a 50-percent general fund budget hike for next fiscal year after a separate bill that would have doubled or tripled some court fees died.

Besides the prosecution commission, the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense, which supports public defender offices statewide, also saw non-recurring funding vetoed by Sanford. Commission Executive Director Patton Adams told The Nerve last week that if the Senate sustains two of Sanford’s vetoes, his agency will lose $1.7 million in per-capita funding for public defender offices.

The agency’s general fund budget for 2010-11, as approved by the Legislature, is about $8.5 million, down about $1.9 million, or 18 percent, from this fiscal year’s ratified budget.

“If the distribution is reduced, it would result in a loss of about 20 percent of our public defender work force,” Adams said, noting there are about 200 public defenders statewide, and that roughly 80 percent of all circuit court criminal cases involve indigent defendants. “That represents about 15,000 cases that will be further delayed in the system.”

S.C. Department of Education spokesman Jim Foster gave an even more dire warning for his agency if the Senate sustains a veto of $900,000 from the department’s transportation budget.  Those funds would come from extra tax dollars collected by the Department of Revenue.

In a written response last week to The Nerve, Foster said that even if the veto is overridden, state lawmakers didn’t appropriate enough money to “keep school buses running through the next school year unless diesel fuel ends up being much cheaper than we project.”

“If we should lose the $900,000, we will run out of operating money even sooner next spring, “ Foster said. “When that happens, we anticipate going to the General Assembly and asking for one of two things: an emergency appropriation or permission to run a deficit.”

The Senate on Tuesday also will be asked to override a veto that would cut $662,000 from the department’s Career and Technology Education (CATE) program.  Foster said that line item is for new textbooks and computer software for 90,000 students at career and technology centers statewide.

“These are classes like web design and computer programming, which should rightly feature cutting-edge instructional materials,” Foster said. “But some of the textbooks and computer software the kids are using now date from the late 1990s, and that’s a problem. Can a student really master computer programming when his computer has Word 97 installed?”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.