COLUMBIA -- Rather than increase court fees and the cost of car registrations and licenses for hunters and fishermen, state legislators propose cutting prescriptions for the poor, medicine for AIDS patients and screenings for those with breast or cervical cancer.
The House voted 71-44 on Wednesday to cut more than $50 million in state aid for health and special services programs from the upcoming state budget that is now below $5 billion.
The cuts would free up $22.5 million for the Department of Public Safety to keep highway troopers on the roads and $24.3 million for the Judicial Branch to stop the layoffs of law clerks, court reporters and administrative assistants. The Department of Natural Resources will receive $2.7 million and House operations will get $3 million.
That cash originally was intended to come from fee increases designed by the Senate. The fee increases included $12 for the biennial car registration, $2 for hunting and fishing licenses and $5 for boat titles.
The proposed court fee increases, effective for two years, would have raised the price for people to file lawsuits, motions and appeals. The proposed cuts were put forward because the House failed to override a veto by Gov. Mark Sanford on the court fees last week.
Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins, said targeting the cuts primarily to health care programs is "punishment" by Republicans for Democrats who voted to sustain the veto.
"We all know what this is really about," Neal said.
The consequences of the budget cuts for the state's most vulnerable are grave.
"It means they will lose their lives," he said. "They will die."
The budget cuts include: $200,000 less for kidney disease prevention, $850,000 for free medical clinics, $1.7 million for smoking cessation, $2 million for breast and cervical cancer screenings, $2 million for colorectal cancer screenings and $5.6 million for AIDS and HIV treatment and prevention.
Also, the House decided to cap enrollment for children with lower-income parents in the State Children's Health Insurance Program to save $1.7 million, limit prescriptions for people on Medicaid to three per month to generate $10.7 million and cut $18.4 million from Department of Social Services assistance provided to parents who cannot provide for the basic needs of their children.
The budget now goes to the Senate, which is likely to send it to conference committee where House and Senate negotiators will settle differences between the two versions. The final version would go to the outgoing Sanford, who typically delivers a stack of vetoes.
The last-minute turn of events ended any talk that the Legislature might adjourn early this session. Adjournment from regular session now is expected June 3.
Sanford's communications director, Ben Fox, said the governor has urged budget writers for weeks to draft a budget that doesn't raise taxes and fees on working South Carolinians.
Sue Berkowitz, director of S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice and an advocate for the state's lower-income residents, said the most devastating aspect of the situation is that legislators still won't consider a broad plan to raise revenue. Instead, the House vote will cause residents to choose between insulin and blood pressure medicine, among other consequences.
"These are detrimental life-threatening cuts to people who have nowhere else to turn," Berkowitz said.
Valerie Assey, a registered nurse and coordinator for HIV and AIDS services at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the choice to cut treatment and prevention efforts for the disease is a mistake.
The Charleston and North Charleston area ranks 22nd highest in the nation for the number of newly diagnosed AIDS cases, she said.
"The unfortunate problem is, we're getting cut from all sides," Assey said. "We're starting to see a large increase in people in their early- to mid-20s getting infected and the only way to stop that is with a prevention program."
Virginia King, director of prevention services at Lowcountry AIDS Services, said an obvious difference exists between keeping the cost down on hunting and fishing licenses and giving life-sustaining drugs to people. The vote by legislators sends a message, King said.
"They may need to look at those individuals who are working menial jobs and trying to carve out an existence and they have no health care," she said. "These people are in need."