Romney goes on offensive, trades barbs with opponents in last debate before primary

Sen. John McCain

COLUMBIA -- Legislative leaders in South Carolina said Thursday that tax increases are out of the question as they look to fill a budget gap of more than $800 million.

Republican House and Senate leaders said no agency will be spared deep budget cuts they know will cause hardship to people across the state. However, while they could give few specific examples of what services they're willing to trim, they also wouldn't rule out further tax cuts.

The state spending plan has been reduced from $7 billion to $5 billion over the past two years. Continued cuts will dig into basic services, said House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont.

Most of the cuts likely will come from education and Medicaid because that's where a bulk of the state money goes, he said.

"There's going to be a lot of pain before we get through this year," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said. "Will there be tax increases? No! Absolutely not."

Voters clearly said in November that they're taxed enough, said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.

But the automatic no-tax- increase pledge leaves a glaring question, said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg: "Is the money just going to fall out of the sky?" And she notes taxes have increased in the past two years, though in the form of fines and user fees.

She said she again will propose lifting the state's $300 sales tax cap on cars, though she acknowledges it has no chance of passing.

House Minority Leader Harry Ott lambasted service cuts to disabled children, which were announced last month by the state's Medicaid agency and take effect beginning Feb. 1. Other cuts announced by the agency include eliminating vision, dental and hospice programs for adults, increasing some co-pays and scaling back on meal and care programs that keep seniors living at home instead of nursing facilities.

The state's Medicaid agency essentially will run out of money by March. It projects a $228 million shortfall this fiscal year and is among three Cabinet agencies asking for permission to run a deficit. The social services department faces a $29 million shortfall, while corrections says it will run $7.5 million short.

Legislators of both parties criticized the requests, saying it's unfair for agencies overseen by the governor to spend more than they're allocated.

If agencies overseen by the governor can deficit spend, why couldn't the Education Department, asked Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia.

Gov.-elect Nikki Haley, who takes office next week, campaigned on eliminating the state's corporate income tax.

Cobb-Hunter said doing so would be fiscally irresponsible. The state's corporate income tax rate is already among the nation's lowest.

The House Republican Caucus released its priority list Thursday.

It included some rehashed ideas that previously passed the House but failed to get final approval, such as requiring photo identification at the polls, shortening the legislative session and reforming when real estate is reassessed.