- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The Senate Judiciary chairman said Tuesday restoring aid to local governments should be a higher priority than expanding kindergarten for 4 year olds.

Sen. Larry Martin recommends taking $16 million in local aid off a budget wish list and putting money toward expanding full-day 4K on it. The swap would leave $8 million in additional money for at-risk 4-year-olds in the regular budget. Senators are expected to take up his proposal Wednesday in their second day of budget debate.

The Finance Committee’s budget plan funded the expansion partly by cutting local aid and putting that $16 million near the top of a list to be funded if the state collects more revenue than currently projected. Martin said that’s not fair.

Martin believes there will be money to fund both, but putting it on the surplus list means local officials can’t count on it as they craft their own budgets. The fiscal year starts July 1. But items on the list may not be funded until this fall, after the accounting books are closed on the current year.

“You can’t count on what you don’t know will be there, so it’s a cut to local governments, and I’m not willing to accept that,” said Martin, R-Pickens. “It’s the fair thing to do. Hopefully, it will restore lost confidence in us.”

Tim Winslow with the state Association of Counties said his members approve of the education increases but not at taxpayers’ expense. Further cuts into local aid could result in higher property taxes and fees or cuts to local law enforcement, which makes up much of county budgets, he said.

“Property taxpayers deserve some relief,” he said.

Restoring the money would bring the “local government fund” back to $213 million, unchanged since 2012-13. The money is distributed based on population, with 83 percent going to counties and 17 percent to cities.

A 1991 law requires that local governments receive 4.5 percent of the previous year’s state tax collections. But legislators have not followed that law since 2008, when the total aid reached $280 million. The fund dipped as low as $182.6 million in 2011-12. It should be at nearly $290 million in 2014-15.

The Legislature hasn’t brought local government aid back to where it should be since climbing out of the Great Recession, Martin said.

“Local governments have suffered with reductions, and it’s time the Senate recognize that,” he said.

He believes the Legislature should first fund its obligations before an expansion.

The 4K expansion is part of the Senate’s plan to boost children’s chances of success, as a major component of its Read to Succeed compromise passed last month, which also involves reading initiatives in the early grades. The bill calls for eventually providing state-paid, full-day 4K for all at-risk students statewide.

The Senate Finance plan follows the House proposal on the reading initiatives. That includes about $30 million for reading coaches in elementary schools and an additional $4.5 million for summer reading programs. The House plan didn’t include anything additional for 4K.

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