AIKEN - Members of the community anxious to hear something positive about South Carolina's troubled economy were told Tuesday to prepare for more of the same.
State Sen. Tommy Moore (right) talks about new budget cuts while Aiken County School Board Chairman John Bradley (left) and County Council Chairman Ronnie Young listen at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Aiken.
State and local leaders gathered at an Aiken Chamber of Commerce breakfast to address questions from business representatives. Discussion never strayed far from South Carolina's projected budget shortfall.
State agencies have had budgets slashed for the past three years and face additional cuts next week. Gov. Jim Hodges has called a special legislative session to address the budget, which economists say will be short at least $348 million.
The shortfall could be as high as $500 million, legislators said at Tuesday's meeting.
"Santa Claus will not be coming from Columbia next year," state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, told the audience of about 100 people.
Legislators discussed the possibility of raising the cigarette tax to bring in more revenue, an option that is not likely to pass during next week's session, Mr. Smith said. A proposal before the General Assembly calls for raising the tax from 7 cents to 65 cents. The national average for taxing cigarettes is 50 cents, Mr. Smith said.
He said the bill will face strong opposition from representatives of the state's Lowcountry, where tobacco is still grown.
Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh expressed concern over city revenue lost when the state's car tax and telecommunications fees were slashed, saying the cuts could lead to increased city taxes. Aiken hasn't increased taxes in 14 years, he said.
Aiken County School Board Chairman John Bradley said increased property taxes are inevitable in anticipation of another round of cuts. The school board depleted its contingency fund last year when it lost $5 million in funding.
The board increased property taxes by 10 mills after the midyear loss.
Legislators at the meeting, including Sens. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, and Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater, said they would what they could to protect education, though it would lose some funding along with every other state agency.
They said improving the state's budget woes in the future means improving the education system and bolstering economic development.
But for now, "We're going to cut services," Mr. Moore said. "There's no two ways about it."
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.