COLUMBIA -- South Carolinas residents would pay higher fees to own cars, hunt, fish and go to court under a $5 billion spending plan approved by state senators early Friday.
The proposal would use nearly $1 billion in federal bailout cash but still reach into residents' pockets to offset slumping state revenues and cover critical services like putting Highway Patrol troopers on the road and heading off layoffs in the court system.
The plans for the next budget year brought hours of protest and debate from politicians who equated the fees with tax hikes. They started work Thursday morning and did not take a final vote for 17 hours.
"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."
The spending plan, which now heads back to the House and a likely conference committee, marks the latest measure of bad news for a budget battered by the recession. Poor tax collections have eroded state spending, which has plunged from $7 billion two years ago.
The Senate plan relies on federal bailout money to spare education spending from deep cuts overall. Budget writers say when those federal dollars dry up in the 2012 fiscal year, the state will face a crisis and the state-funded part of the budget will shrink to $3.9 billion.
The plan uses 1995 levels for per-student spending, with state funding for public schools falling by more than $83 million. The federal money actually increases total public school spending by $91 million, but teachers may still be hit by furloughs and layoffs.
Lawmakers also have agreed to reduce incentives for teacher training and earlier this week 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 get for classroom supplies. Legislators argued that those measures are specifically designed to head off more furloughs and layoffs.
The plan would have 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.
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.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman said fees are the only option for balancing the budget. "There just simply aren't enough resources to meet the needs of the people in the state," said Leatherman, a Florence Republican.
"We're raising fees out the wazoo," said Republican state Sen. Shane Massey of Edgefield.
Budget has winners, losers
The $5 billion spending plan the S.C. Senate approved early Friday leaves many state agencies short on money, but some of those losses are made up by federal bailout cash. Some agencies end up winners, too.
Election Commission: 237 percent increase, or $3.4 million. Why you care: The money helps the commission run elections in November.
Commerce Department: 87 percent increase, or $4.1 million. Why you care: The agency gets $5 million to seal job-creating deals.
Senate: 73 percent, or $5.6 million. Why you care. Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell said the Senate has run out of reserve cash and would face staff cuts amid the need for major repairs to its office building. And $1.9 million covers redrawing voting district lines for the Legislature and U.S. House seats.
Lieutenant Governor's Office: 43 percent increase, or $1.4 million. Why you care: The lieutenant governor runs the state's Office on Aging, which picked up $1.6 million in state cash for home- and community-based meals.
Probation and Parole: 28 percent increase, or $4.2 million. Why you care: About $2.7 million of the increase covers the costs of complying with state sentencing laws.
Judicial Department: 31 percent decrease, or $7 million. Why you care: The reduction is more than covered by a more than $20 million increase in court fees that will make it more expensive to file and pursue lawsuits.
State Ethics Commission: 30 percent decrease, or $109,266 in state funds. Why you care: The agency is the chief enforcement agency for the state's campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws.
Department of Natural Resources: 25 percent decrease, or $4.2 million. Why you care: The agency would make up more than $2.7 of that loss with a $2 increase in hunting and fishing licenses and $5 hike in boat licenses.
Department of Labor and Licensing: 24 percent decrease, or $426,130. Why you care: The agency oversees the licensing and regulation of dozens of professions.
Attorney General: 23 percent decrease, or $1.1 million. Why you care. The attorney general is the state's top prosecutor and lawyer.