S.C. agencies curb spending

Some S.C. government agencies have frozen hiring and made spending cuts as officials grapple with a weak economy.

The state Education Department has stopped hiring, cut travel and delayed buying new equipment, agency spokesman Jim Foster said Friday.

The state Department of Public Safety halted some raises, froze hiring for non-critical jobs and is scrutinizing travel plans, said spokesman Sid Gaulden. Those moves do not affect adding new troopers to the Highway Patrol.

The spending cuts are being made because of expected calls for belt-tightening that could hit school districts hard. The Education Department gets nearly a third of South Carolina's $7billion budget, $2.4billion this year, and nearly all of that goes to school districts, Foster said.

Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the South Carolina School Boards Association, said school systems are bracing for the unknown and trying to save by not filling already-open jobs.

“They just don't know where these cuts are going to fall,” Elmore said.

State budget overseers are meeting next week and have told The Associated Press they plan to call for agencies to save up to 2percent of the money they originally planned to spend. But there's a chance that agencies will be asked to save even more later in the year – a possibility bolstered by the revelation Friday that July tax revenues were 2.9percent below year-ago levels.

Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom said Friday that it would be reasonable for him and other members of the Budget and Control Board to ask state agencies to set aside 1percent of the money agencies planned to spend. He also said a $133million state emergency fund will likely be used to patch expected budget gaps.

Other board members have said they're mulling a cut of 2percent, or $120million. Foster said agencies expect more calls to save money to follow.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Foster said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services, which gets nearly $1.5 billion in state money, already has given up $100 million in savings that was socked away for an overhaul of how it delivers Medicaid. The legislature opted to use that cash to cover other health care agency spending. The agency has had a hiring freeze in place for months that's keeping 5 percent of its jobs, 70 positions, unfilled, said spokesman Jeff Stensland.