COLUMBIA — State legislators gave initial approval Monday to a $2.5 billion basic spending package for South Carolina's public schools despite concerns that it improperly taps federal stimulus cash.
The Education Department's budget, the biggest single item in the $6.6 billion state budget, won initial House approval with little debate beyond the issue of how $416 million in federal cash flows to school systems.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews, warned that South Carolina may end up losing the federal money because it doesn't comply with federal rules that require the state to keep up with historical spending levels. Instead, the House budget essentially rolls back the state's spending commitment to 2006 levels and reduces general fund spending by nearly $93 million and ignores altogether the drop in school funding resulting from falling sales tax collections.
"It does not meet what I believe is the clear language in the recovery plan," Ott said. He has asked the U.S. Department of Education for an interpretation of the state's obligations to get the federal money.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont, said he had no written interpretation from the federal agency when the budget committee wrote the bill.
Cooper said if his interpretation is wrong, the state's options include forcing up to 6 percent in across-the-board budget cuts.
That would be yet another round of bad news for state agencies that have seen their budgets slashed by $1 billion since July.
The state's $7 billion fiscal 2009 budget was downsized to deal with slumping revenues in the recession.
Even with the federal bailout cash, most agencies that don't have ties to education or Medicaid are seeing more spending reductions.