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S.C. budget holds benefits to Grand Strand

The $5 billion budget the S.C. House sent to the Senate on Thursday included some unexpected good news for the Grand Strand.

Rep. Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach, said several programs beneficial to Grand Strand residents were put back into the House version of the budget before the final vote was taken Thursday morning. Those included funds for tourism marketing and health care programs.

"Nobody expected anything. It's a good surprise. We got $6 million for the two-for-one marketing program that the [Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce] loves, and of course bear in mind this was all put in at a time when we were cutting with a meat ax," he said.

The House approved the budget 64-52 after an all-night session that focused on abortion, cigarette taxes and a loan to a golf tournament.

The plan would raise the state's cigarette tax by 30 cents a pack to 37 cents. The money goes to a trust fund for Medicaid expenses, to be used starting in 2011-12. Legislators rejected repeated efforts to raise the tax more.

The cigarette tax avoids further cuts in health and medical programs, including those for the disabled, by designating the bulk of $200 million expected from federal Medicaid assistance not yet approved by Washington. The rest would go in savings to help offset an expected $1 billion budget gap for 2011-12, when federal bailout money runs out.

In an e-mail to legislators, Gov. Mark Sanford said it would be wiser to set aside that $175 million.

While several programs that might benefit the Grand Strand were reinserted into the House version of the budget bill, many House members said there wasn't a lot to be happy about with a budget that shrunk more than $2 billion over the last few years.

"If it was just South Carolina, I would be concerned, but this is happening all across the country. There is no way to do a budget when you've cut most of the fat out of the budget, and now we're getting into the lean, and walk away happy with everything," said Rep. Liston Barfield, R-Aynor. "I didn't like the budget, and I don't think there's anybody who voted for the budget who liked it. To make some of the decisions we had to make, it was not easy, but people can't afford another tax. It's all a lot of people can do right now to put food on the table."

Edge, who chairs the health care subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, said money from several statewide health care initiatives that was reinserted into the House version of the budget may find its way to Horry County. The largest is a $10 million allocation for allied health care programs at technical colleges, and with the largest allied health program and the most nursing graduates, Horry-Georgetown Technical College stands to receive a large portion of that money.

Barfield said he did support the 30 cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes, saying he fought to keep the tax as low as possible to keep the state competitive.

"We have long borders with Georgia and North Carolina, and if we get our taxes out of line with those states, people may not buy their cigarettes here and even worse, they may not stop at gas stations here," he said.

"There's a lot of people in this state who are unemployed and don't have money, and quite frankly the poor people are the ones buying the cigarettes," Barfield said. "And you have to have a heart for those people. I used to smoke and it's not an easy habit to break."

Rep. Thad Viers, R-Myrtle Beach , said he did not vote for the budget bill that came out of the House, partly because of the cigarette tax.

"I told my constituents I would not vote to raise taxes, so I felt I could not vote for a budget that has a tax incentive for cigarettes," Viers said.

Education advocates opposed to the size of the cigarette tax, asking that it be increased and some of the funding be allocated to projected cuts to school districts, which the S.C. Department of Education has said could mean furloughs for the 48,000 teachers statewide.

Horry County Schools Superintendent Cindy Elsberry said there are other options the legislature should consider. "My stance is that the state legislature is responsible for providing funding for our schools. I don't really think it's our job to tell us how to fund it. I think that's their job," Elsberry said.

Other Grand Strand related items that remained in the budget include $500,000 each for the future Interstate 73 and Interstate 74; $700,000 for SharedCare; funds for operating costs for Loris Hospital; trauma center incentives for Grand Strand Regional Medical Center.

Much of the overnight debate focused on abortion. The plan approved late Thursday bans most state-paid abortions, the only exception being if an abortion was an "incidental" effect of a doctor trying to save a mother's life, provided the doctor was working to save both. Legislators said half a dozen women received a state-paid abortion last year under the current exceptions to victims of rape or incest and women whose lives are in jeopardy.

The budget bill also promises to loan $10 million if Hilton Head's Heritage golf tournament, the only PGA tournament in the state, can't find a new sponsor. Opponents, including Viers, criticized the move.

"I could not support a budget that gives a line of credit to a private golf tournament. ... My constituents are tired of government bailouts for private entities and I have to vote with my constituents."

Proponents argued that the tournament supports hundreds of jobs.

Support for tourism apparently buoyed the decision to allocate area travel marketing funds. The Myrtle Beach area generally has drawn down about half of the two-for-one program's statewide funding, which Edge said he hopes to be able to increase to about $10 million during the budget year.

" The Associated Press contributed to this report.