COLUMBIA — Trying to make ends meet, state lawmakers could renege on a promise to contribute nearly $20 million next year to help replace South Carolina's old, and in many cases, dangerous school buses.
The Senate Finance Committee sorted through the state budget Tuesday to find ways to make up $240 million as state revenue forecasts grow more bleak by the day.
The cuts must be made to the current spending plan and the one that begins July 1.
"The money just wasn't there," said Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican and lead budget writer.
Buses aren't the only hit public schools could take. The most recent budget projections of the total shortfall show slumping sales tax revenues will leave districts with about $60 million less for this year and next.
Victoria Musheff, a Mount Pleasant parent, said she believes it's a mistake to cut money for new buses. She helped push lawmakers to adopt the replacement cycle last year after reading about the deteriorating condition of the state's fleet in an investigative series by The Post and Courier. The newspaper's report found South Carolina's school buses to be the oldest, most- polluting and least safe in the nation.
Musheff said she understands that lawmakers need to trim costs in a difficult economic environment, but she doesn't want them to target areas that will "endanger the lives of our children." If lawmakers don't pay for new school buses, the current fleet will remain dangerous with the potential for constant breakdowns and fires, Musheff said.
"I know that my child's life alone is worth more than $19.7 million," she said.
The state would have to purchase about 480 buses a year to replace the fleet by 2022, but with the proposed cut, the state Department of Education would be able to buy only about 150 new buses. The first allocation provided enough to purchase 551.
Charleston-area legislators, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, said finding money to stay on the replacement cycle is a priority.
"School buses don't need to be cut," said McConnell, R-Charleston. "If they want a fight on school buses, I suspect there will be one."
Merrill, R-Daniel Island, said the state made a commitment to pull those old buses off the road. He hopes the Senate will restore that spending before the budget goes back to the House.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said he was disappointed that the senators felt the money for the bus replacement cycle needed to be cut. He said, though, he couldn't pass judgment given the tough decisions they were faced with.
"I know they are doing the best they can," Harrell said, noting that the House will make any changes it sees fit.
The full Senate could begin budget debates as early as next week. The Finance Committee has drawn up a $7 billion budget that also includes an average of 3.6 percent reductions for state agencies.
The committee also proposes cutting 2 percent salary raises for state employees to free up money. All told, revenue for the upcoming 2008-09 budget is down by $90 million.
Public schools will need to cut a combined total of $30 million from their current budgets and plan on at least $30 million less for next year.
With the school year nearing its end, the news Tuesday left frustrated educators with few choices. The cuts must come from one funding source that traditionally pays for school programs, such as summer school, Advanced Placement classes, gifted and talented courses and alternative schools.
Under law, teacher salaries are safe from these cuts and individual districts are given flexibility to decide how to manage the loss in other areas.
State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex wants the Education Department to absorb as many of the cuts as it can at the agency level to ease the burden on local school districts and leave as much money as possible for classroom instruction, said Jim Foster, agency director of communications.
Local school districts will find out the specific amount that they will have to cut from their existing budget within the week, Foster said.
The state also has about $90 million less in this year's budget.
Gov. Mark Sanford criticized the Legislature for overspending when revenue was flowing into Columbia, and warned that the economic slump is not over yet.
"This was not unpredictable," he said during his Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
The governor also has been critical about a grants program that has a balance of $18.4 million. He calls the program a legislative slush fund and suggested the Senate look to shifting that balance before cutting elsewhere.
The latest budget forecasts have state revenue down by $240 million for this year's and next year's spending plan. The cuts are steep and will have to come from a variety of areas.
Here's a breakdown of the situation and the proposed cuts put forward Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee.
-- The current budget must be cut by $90 million. The Finance Committee wants to cut: $19.7 million for new school buses, $4.5 million for a high-speed fiber optic network for South Carolina research institutions, $12.5 million for tourism marketing, $1 million for land conservation, $600,000 for the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, $2.4 million for dredging in Charleston Harbor and $50,000 for the ongoing construction of a science center at the College of Charleston, along with a long list of state and local projects.
-- The 2008-09 budget, which starts July 1, must be cut by $40 million. The committee wants to eliminate 2 percent salary increases for state employees.
An earlier version of the Senate budget anticipated the revenue shortfall and set spending $50 million less than revenue projections at that time.
-- Public schools will lose $60 million from the current spending plan and in the next fiscal year. The money comes from the Education Improvement Act fund, generated from a 1-cent sales tax approved in 1984. While teacher salaries funded by the EIA are protected, schools will have to cut spending for an assortment of programs, such as summer school and Advanced Placement classes.