COLUMBIA - Thousands of people gathered at the Statehouse on Saturday to protest legislators' plans to cut $700 million from the state budget by making severe cuts to Medicaid and education programs.
Waving signs and banging drums, the protesters urged state leaders to find other ways to close a budget gap than cutting by services to the state's most vulnerable citizens.
Michelle Clembury brought her two sons up from Charleston. Eight-year-old Geb waved a white-painted cardboard placard that said, "Save Dollars, Fire the Governor" as 6-year-old Llyr held up another that said "Save our PE."
Their mother was worried that spending cuts in public schools would further curtail physical education programs. "I'm worried that our children aren't getting the exercise, the fitness, the nutrition education," Michelle Clembury said.
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They were among the teachers, state workers, and religious, civil rights and union group members who gathered at the Statehouse steps. On Monday, the House will begin debating a $5.2 billion budget that closes a $700 million deficit by not replacing federal bailout cash, reducing payments to Medicaid providers and cutting welfare payments.
State police did not provide crowd estimates. Event organizers estimated that 2,500 people had participated in the rally.
More than 70 groups carried the message Saturday that South Carolina legislators could find other ways to close the budget gap, including by ending tax breaks and closing loopholes, as the state's Tax Realignment Commission had recommended.
That the report's recommendations have largely been ignored by lawmakers disappointed Eve Ross, a 33-year-old lawyer who attended the group's hearings. "I thought they were going in a great direction and all these special exemptions were going to come out and everyone's taxes were going to get lowered yet everything was going to get funded fairly," Ross said.
"I can't believe they're just going to throw that away."
The Republicans who control the legislature and new Gov. Nikki Haley, also a Republican, have shown no interest in raising taxes to address revenue problems such as the evaporation of federal stimulus money. With public schools facing the loss of $174 million in federal bailout cash under the House plan, though, legislators tapped a $100 million reserve fund to avert teacher job losses.
Jackie Hicks, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said she was tired of hearing the state doesn't have the money. "We need tax reform that will allow us to create a moral budget," Hicks said. That includes ending breaks that cap sales taxes at $300 for boats, planes and vehicles.
"For too long, the sales tax has taken a huge bite out of the budgets of middle-class families, but we've capped the sales tax so the rich pay proportionately little for their Mercedes and their yachts," Hicks said.
Mingled with the budget protesters were a few members of the Columbia Tea Party and the South Carolina Taxpayers Association, a group that pushes anti-tax pledges in the Statehouse.
Don Weaver, the association's president, said the wealthy need the breaks or the state loses business to competing states. "If I'm a yacht owner, if I'm a plane owner, I don't have to title it in South Carolina," Weaver said. "If we run all the yachts and the planes off, we lose all the fuel taxes."
Columbia Tea Party founder Allen Olson said tax increases would saddle children with an immoral debt. "We need to make the cuts now and the people who spend the money are the ones that need to take the hit," Olson said.
Those taking the hit this time include doctors who take Medicaid patients. Budget writers have agreed to close a Medicaid deficit by taking at least $125 million from reimbursements for patient care. Caregivers say that will lead to job cuts and the turning away of patients.
Peter Coolidge, a 26-year-old medical student, said that budget cutting makes people think twice about being in family practice. "If they're going to continue cutting budgets, then they're going to drive people away from that," Coolidge said.