- Associated Press - Thursday, February 20, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The House budget-writing committee on Thursday advanced a $7 billion spending plan for state taxes that provides more money for public schools, hires more law enforcement officers and pays for the next round of cybersecurity measures.

The Ways and Means Committee voted 20-1 to send its budget package to the full House. It includes a separate bill that would spend $117 million from this year’s rainy day fund. When including all revenue sources - such as federal money, fees, fines, lottery profits and college tuition - the total state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 would be $24 billion, up from $22.5 billion this year.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she voted against the plan because it punishes two public colleges for their book selections. The committee refused Wednesday, by a vote of 13-10, to restore $52,000 to the College of Charleston and $17,142 to the University of South Carolina Upstate. The colleges spent those amounts on books dealing with homosexuality that were assigned to this year’s freshmen. The cuts reduced what the colleges can spend from their own revenue sources.

“There is prejudice in this budget,” she said in explaining the lone “no” vote.

The spending plan provides state employees a 1.5 percent cost-of-living raise. It also requires agencies to fully cover workers’ rising health insurance premiums, though employees will pay up to 4 percent more in out-of-pocket costs through copayments and deductibles.

The budget package continues a third year of state-paid credit monitoring services, at a cost of $6.5 million, offered to taxpayers because of the massive hacking of South Carolina’s tax collection agency in fall 2012, which affected 6.4 million people and businesses. It marks the second year of the state’s contract with CSIdentity Corp. The state’s initial, $12 million contract - negotiated by Gov. Nikki Haley on an emergency basis - was with credit bureau giant Experian.

Ways and Means puts $14.8 million toward the next round of cybersecurity steps recommended by Deloitte & Touche, which was hired last March to review agencies’ technology systems.

The proposal adds $37 million to a Commerce Department fund used to help close economic development deals, up from $24 million in the current fiscal year. Commerce would receive an additional $6 million toward turning sites and abandoned industrial buildings into property that can be marketed to companies that would add jobs, $2.5 million to help grow the high-tech industry and $4 million for university research initiatives that support businesses.

The State Law Enforcement Division would be able to hire 31 people: four to investigate child fatalities, nearly doubling that division from five; 17 alcohol-enforcement agents; and 10 people for its DNA crime lab. The agency has been rebuilding its ranks after severe cuts because of the Great Recession. Now, just nine agents travel the state to ensure businesses follow alcohol laws; four more are in training.

At other law enforcement agencies, the Ways and Means plan adds 10 troopers to the Department of Public Safety, several prosecutors to the attorney general’s office and 10 officers to the Department of Natural Resources.

The spending plan continues the state Medicaid agency’s “healthy outcomes initiatives,” aimed at helping the state’s most frequent emergency room visitors live healthier. And it provides $25 million to rural hospitals to fully cover their cost of treating uninsured patients. Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said the agency has learned the $20 million designated in the current budget is not enough.

Ways and Means also adopted Haley’s budget plan for improving k-12 education, which includes $30 million for reading coaches in elementary schools, $30 million for technology to and within schools, and $4.5 million for summer reading camps.