Destruction shocks even weather experts

A Jeep shows the extent of Wednesday's tornado's force by its extensive damage in Phil Campbell, Ala., Thursday, April 28, 2011. The tornado touchdown Wednesday afternoon destroyed much of the small community and caused several deaths.

COLUMBIA -- The state Legislature should raise taxes to benefit children in desperate need of services, advocates urged lawmakers Tuesday, hours before the state Senate started debate on the proposed $5 billion budget.

But their plea was almost immediately taken off the table.

"I don't see a tax increase in our future," Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said to his colleagues on the Senate floor.

The Senate gave the budget the second of three needed approvals to pass it.

The spending plan includes no tax increases but leans on increased fees for court filings to offset cuts to the judicial branch, as well as adding $12 to the registration fees on cars, $5 on boat registration and $2 on hunting and fishing licenses.

Final approval of the budget is expected to come today after prolonged debate on the Senate floor.

The House passed its version of the budget in March. Negotiators from the House and Senate will need to reconcile the differences in the spending plan before it goes to Gov. Mark Sanford for his signature.

Worsening situation

Hugh Leatherman, the Senate's chief budget writer, said he has not seen a worse budget in his 30-plus years in the Statehouse.

He said lawmakers have four options to deal with the state's budget crisis going forward -- cut spending and eliminate services, increase fines and fees, increase taxes or shut down agencies.

"We're not collecting enough money in our general fund to deliver on all the promises we have made over the years," he said.

Leatherman, R-Florence, said this year's budget is a stop-gap measure that he expects to lead to wholesale changes in the way South Carolina pays for its government.

The budget calls for the Legislature to study the way public education is funded and for an examination of the fines and fees that help run government programs.

Lawmakers will also receive a report about tax exemptions and recommendations about which breaks to repeal.

The budget has been cut by more than $2 billion over the last two years because of falling tax collections that are a result of tax cuts and the economic downturn.

The budget situation is expected to get much worse in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Child advocates

Leatherman said the state is projected to have just $3.9 billion when the federal stimulus cash runs out to pay for public education, Medicaid, law enforcement and other government programs. The budget a decade ago was $5.3 billion.

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Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said the situation is already so desperate for children with poor and lower-middle class parents that legislators need to intervene immediately.

"Cutting services should not be our first choice, nor should it be our only choice," she said at the Statehouse as the Senate went into session.

Berkowitz gathered with about a dozen child advocates who are part of Focus on Kids, an Appleseed project made up of about 60 organizations.

Focus on Kids advocates have been lobbying lawmakers to look out for the needs of children since the Legislature reconvened in January.

Berkowitz said the Legislature needs to consider repealing some of the tax exemptions on the books, adding a couple of cents in sales tax back on groceries and rethinking the property tax swap.

She also asked the governor to sign the 50-cent cigarette tax that is pending in the Legislature.

The governor has said that he would veto any tax increase that does not come with a corresponding tax decrease.

"All of our children deserve to be cared for," Berkowitz said.

"There are real tough solutions out there. As adults, we must do this for our kids."