COLUMBIA -- A compromise version of South Carolina's nearly $5 billion spending plan was approved Thursday after a conference committee ditched House plans to eliminate abortion coverage under the state's health plan for victims of rape and incest.
The six-member panel's approval Thursday sends the spending bill back to the House and Senate for final approval, and it should be on Gov. Mark Sanford's desk next week.
"It's been a very tough year. I know it's not what anyone wants to adopt. We've got no other options, the way it looks," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper.
Because House members soundly rejected efforts to increase a variety of fees earlier in the day, there was no choice but to cut the spending plan by $50 million, Cooper said.
"It's certainly not what we want," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said.
The abortion proposal had been portrayed by budget writers as a key sticking point, but it was barely discussed when the conference committee met. With a 6-0 vote, the panel approved continuing to allow abortions under the plan for rape and incest victims as well as to protect the mother's health.
The abortion issue arose in March as House Republicans won an all-night fight to limit abortions covered by state health insurance to only instances involving the health of the mother, eliminating coverage for abortions sought by victims of rape or incest.
Taxpayer funding for abortions became a huge political issue in the midst of the federal debate on a national health care overhaul.
The spending plan scrapped nearly $50 million in proposed fee and fine increases. That forced deeper cuts into health and social services programs, including prescription drugs for Medicaid patients.
The state Department of Social Services will lose $18 million needed after a federal change in program eligibility threatened state services.
"I am brokenhearted, but I know you tried," Social Services Director Kathleen Hayes told Cooper after the meeting.
"I assume they'll have to run deficits or make cuts," Cooper said. He said it was more important to move that money into items such as operating the state's courts and keeping Highway Patrol troopers on the road.
The spending compromise gives the state Department of Public Safety $11.5 million more than the House had originally proposed, agency director Mark Keel said.
That will allow him to maintain the current number of Highway Patrol officers he has. "They're not in jeopardy anymore," Keel said.
Even with the budget nearly wrapped up, legislators are keeping an eye on final federal approval of state Medicaid program bailout money. South Carolina's budget writers included the state's expected $200 million share in the spending plan that takes effect July 1.
Leatherman said if that doesn't happen, there will be a new round of spending cuts.
And with federal bailout money drying up altogether after June 2011, next year's budget outlook is even worse, with estimates showing a $1.3 billion gap between revenues and spending demands that Cooper and Leatherman are only beginning to decide how to fill.