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SC committee plan would fix bridges, buy buses

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 20, 2013 at 8:27 pm •  Published: February 20, 2013

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Cyber-security, bridge repair and new school buses were part of spending tentatively approved by the House budget-writing committee on Wednesday.

The Ways and Means Committee adopted sections of its budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1. Members will consider more budget clauses Thursday before voting on their overall plan.

Spending agreements include what Republicans call their alternative to expanding Medicaid eligibility to more poor people, as called for in the federal health care law. The GOP plan includes reimbursing rural hospitals 100 percent of their costs for treating patients without health care and giving more money to health centers that care for poor people who don't qualify for Medicaid.

The committee is expected to lay out more specifics on that Thursday. Democrats have promised to fight to expand eligibility.

The plan would increase a main source of money for public schools by $77 million, boosting the so-called base student cost that primarily funds salaries to $2,068 per student, up by $56. More than $20 million of that is needed just to accommodate student growth, said Rep. Kenny Bingham, subcommittee chairman for K-12 schools' budget.

The state education agency would receive $10.5 million to buy or lease school buses, as well as $12 million to maintain the old ones. Superintendent Mick Zais had requested $34 million for new buses alone.

The Department of Mental Health budget designates $700,000 for mental health services in schools.

While acknowledging the amount won't cover the cost, Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said, "it will help reach out to more schools and identity people have mental illness."

Republicans argue shoring up mental health services, not gun restrictions, will help prevent tragedies like the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December.

As for law enforcement, the plan funds 25 new probation officers, to help the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole deal with a rising case load stemming from the 2010 sentencing reform law that reduces the number of nonviolent offenders in prison.

Beyond increasing the caseload for probation agents, the law also led to a concentration of the "worst of the worst" in prisons, said Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens.

The budget plan provides an additional $13 million to the prisons agency to improve security and officer safety, something Gov. Nikki Haley pushed for in her executive budget, citing two hostage situations at Lee Corrections last year.

Also as Haley recommended, the budget would provide pay increases only for officers in maximum-security prisons, at 3 percent.

House budget writers approved spending $60 million to fix bridges with load restrictions.

And the plan sets aside $25 million for cyber-security, as lawmakers consider ways to improve security across state agencies in the wake of last fall's massive breach at the Department of Revenue. The money would cover costs including software upgrades and a possible new computer information security agency.

It could also extend credit monitoring for taxpayers who signed up with Experian after the hacking of millions of residents' personal data was announced. The state paid $12 million to Experian for a year of monitoring through a no-bid contract. Other vendors are being considered for future services, said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston.

"We're going to have to negotiate to continue to cover our citizens," he said.

State employees would pay more for health care.

The committee approved spending an additional $59 million to fully cover the rising cost of health care premiums, so employees' take-home pay won't decrease. However, they will pay more out of pocket if they get sick. Doctor, hospital and pharmacy co-pays would increase by 20 percent. Employees also would be required to spend more before coverage kicks in, since health care deductibles would also rise 20 percent.

For single employees, the deductible would increase from $350 to $420. Family deductibles would increase from $700 to $840. Doctor visits would increase by $2, to $12, and emergency room visits would increase by $25 to $150.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said legislators need to figure out how to avoid those increases.

That would cost the state roughly $50 million more. The state plans to seek a waiver for the state health plan regarding preventative care services required in the federal health care. That would have cost roughly $70 million additional.


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