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State House nears passing spending plan

S.C. House members voted Tuesday to turn back money-saving proposals urged by Gov. Nikki Haley, meaning they would preserve taxpayer money to run the 2012 presidential primary and the state's arts agency.

Still, legislators went along with her other proposals to end payments to state agency lobbyists and scuttle a new aviation and research program at the University of South Carolina.

The House gave key approval to the $5.2 billion spending plan with a 77-42 vote Tuesday. A final vote expected today would send the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to the Senate.

Haley had asked the House to cut more than $25 million: $1 million for the 2012 presidential primary; $16 million from state worker health care spending; nearly $2 million from the state Arts Commission; $5 million from a University of South Carolina aviation and research program and $1 million from pay to lobbyists who work for state agencies.

The governor has been working with legislators on the budget for weeks in private meetings and her spokesman, Rob Godfrey said there was some disappointment. "While there are parts of the budget that she is disappointed to see included, it would be premature to start talking about any possible vetoes before the Senate takes up the budget," Godfrey said.

South Carolina's first-in-the-South presidential primary looms as a key contest in picking the 2012 GOP nominee. In a letter to legislators Monday, the Republican governor argued public funds aren't needed.

"Political parties have sufficient fundraising ability to offset the costs of partisan presidential preference primaries, and in a budget year like this one, it is my ask that we do not dedicate taxpayer dollars to something I believe does not rise to the level of a core function of government," she wrote.

Rep. Nathan Ballentine, an Irmo Republican and Haley's former House seatmate, said the presidential primary is important, but legislators haven't set aside enough money to cover 2012 Statehouse primaries. "I would rate us higher than the presidential primary," Ballentine said.

Rep. Tracy Edge, R-Myrtle Beach, said the state has been embarrassed before by presidential primary problems. "I would think the taxpayers would rather spend a couple million bucks here than not be embarrassed on the national stage like we will be if we don't rise to the occasion," Edge said.

Ballentine's amendment failed with a 46-69 vote.

S.C. Republican Party Chairwoman Karen Floyd said legislators should set aside money for the primary to ensure the first-in-the-South contest will pass legal muster. "From that standpoint, we believe it is prudent for the Legislature to include this money in the budget now as the best avenue for ensuring this is the case, and we thank the House for doing so," Floyd said in a prepared statement.

Floyd said the GOP will try to raise private cash to try to cover primary costs and use the state money as a backup.

At the end of December, the S.C. Republican Party had less than $5,000 in cash on hand in its state and federal accounts. No date has been set for the contest.

The party would have to raise more than $90,000 a month to generate $1 million for a January 2012 primary.

Haley also wanted state workers to pick up a greater share of rising health insurance premiums.