SC senators pull all-nighter to approve $5B budget

Columbia, SC - COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - South Carolina senators fought sleep and argued over fees in a rare all-night session as they wrapped up work on a $5 billion state spending plan early Friday morning.

Even after using nearly $1 billion in federal bailout cash, legislators resorted to fee increases to cover critical services like putting Highway Patrol troopers on the road and heading off layoffs in the state's court system.

"We're raising fees out the wazzoo," said Republican state Sen. Shane Massey of Edgefield.

Massey and a handful of other freshmen led a 17-hour marathon to squelch fees, calling them tax increases in disguise.

"We all say — at least on our side of the aisle — we're against tax increases," said Republican Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg. "But yet we call it fees and we increase the burden on the backs of ordinary South Carolinians when they can afford it the least."

But there was no other way out for budget writers this year or in the foreseeable future, said Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman after the Senate sent the appropriations bill back the House to consider. "We're going to be looking at fee-driven budgets. There just simply aren't enough resources to meet the needs of the people in the state," said Leatherman, a Florence Republican.

The spending plan now heading back to the House and a likely conference committee is filled with fees that would reach into taxpayer pockets in ways that bring into their daily lives the problems the state has in making ends meet and paying for basic services.

A $12 surcharge to the biennial car registration fee of $24 became a quick target for fee opponents. It raises $22 million to keep troopers on the job and equip trainees who are graduating.

Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer ruled the fee increase out of order. But in a rare move, the Senate voted 28-14 to overrule his decision.

The fee fighters didn't succeed in stifling that or other increases.

— A $2 increase in fishing and hunting licenses. It would, for instance, raise the price of a combined hunting and fishing license to $27. A boat license would increase by $5. Combined, those measure generate nearly $2.7 million for the Department of Natural Resources for, among other things, law enforcement.

— A $5 fee added to every fine or forfeiture in a magistrate or state court. The money would help cover costs at the Criminal Justice Academy.

— Nearly everyone using state courts would faces higher fees. That includes a new $50 fee for every deposition taken. Massey repeatedly tried to kill that fee and lost. Overall, the court fees are expected to raise more than $20 million to prevent layoffs at the state's courts.

— Legislators also are giving the Department of Revenue an extra $5 million to crack down on tax scofflaws. They expect to generate $100 million in taxes that have gone unpaid.

To get away from fees, senators repeatedly proposed cuts elsewhere. For instance, Bright repeatedly tried to eliminate or reduce spending for First Steps, the state's early childhood education program. He said he's concerned about how efficiently the program is run.

And Republican state Sen. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land set his sights on Big Bird, calling for the Senate to eliminate all money for South Carolina ETV. Big Bird's tail feathers were spared with a 28-14 vote.

Education spending overall was spared deep cuts only because of federal bailout cash and a federal stimulus law requirement that the state maintain spending levels.

The budget uses 1995 levels for per-student spending with state spending on public schools falling by more than $83 million, but that federal cash actually increases total public school spending by $91 million.

Teachers may feel the pinch more than most professions. Districts facing 1995 levels of per student funding in the spending proposal are planning to reduce their teaching ranks and impose furloughs. And legislators have agreed to reduce incentives for teacher training.

And on Wednesday they agreed to suspend the requirement that districts annually increase teacher pay to reflect experience. Districts also could decide not to give teachers the average of $200 they each get for classroom supplies. Legislators argued that those measures are specifically designed to head off more furloughs and layoffs.

The state's four-year colleges lose more than $86 million in state cash, but with the federal cash, they overall end up with $3.4 million more than in the current year's budget.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.