Legislators: More funding to fight virus may have to come from state's $1.8B surplus


A Sumter lawmaker said recently approved emergency funding should be able to help state health officials for the next two weeks to a month, but he thinks more funding will be needed if COVID-19 continues to spread.

"There's probably going to be more money that's going to have to be distributed to the health care community, including the health care agencies at DHEC," said Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter. "The economic impact on this state is catastrophic."

An emergency relief bill was passed by the South Carolina House and Gov. Henry McMaster on Thursday, allocating $45 million immediately to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Smith said once the House passed the bill on Thursday, the Senate president came to Columbia and ratified the bill, and the governor immediately signed it. Legislators had taken the week off because of the virus, but each chamber returned separately to vote on the bill.

According to Smith, the $45 million will be distributed in the following ways:

- $14.5 million for additional staffing;

- $15 million for personal protective equipment;

- $5 million for staff support;

- $2.5 million for an education campaign to inform the public;

- $1.7 million to support indigent patients;

- $1.4 million to move lab samples and other forms of transportation; and

- $5 million for additional funding.

"We're seeing more positive cases in the state, and it's going to continue unless people start practicing social distancing and making sure they're adjusting their lifestyle to prevent this," Smith said. "Everyone needs to do their part. It's up to each of us individually for us to get over this virus."

Smith said he's concerned with what the state's unemployment rate will be after all this, as well as what will happen to the state's $1.8 billion surplus.

"I think that surplus is going to be erased quickly. The House just passed a budget two weeks ago, and it's safe to say that we're going to have to return to Columbia here in the next six weeks or so to rewrite that budget," said Smith, who is also chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is the first group to draft the General Assembly's budget.

State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said the Senate was about to start its budget process, but that changed after COVID-19 made its presence in South Carolina.

"Every year in South Carolina, we pass a balanced budget," McElveen said. "Well now, because of this outbreak, it's become more difficult for us to safely have sub-committee meetings and committee meetings, and this budget was going to include a lot of things like teacher raises and a bunch of commitments that were being made in the House and the Senate. Now, those things are kind of in question."

However, McElveen said the Senate is taking steps to pass a continuing resolution that will allow the state to keep its funding levels the same as the previous year if a budget isn't passed before June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

"Certainly with the money we're having to spend now in response to this outbreak, that will certainly affect our budgeting process as far as what we have in reserve for what our budget forecast is for this coming year," McElveen said. "We're going to go back and do what we have to do. That's what we signed up for, and that's what our responsibility is. If there is a situation where we have to return to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government going or to pass more emergency funding for this, we're going to be there."

Both McElveen and Smith agreed that the future of the state is in the hands of its residents as the governor has signed executive orders to reduce the spread of the virus and keep individuals safe.

On Monday, McMaster signed an Executive Order authorizing law enforcement agencies to issue criminal misdemeanors to people gathered in groups of three or more. The order does not apply to people in homes or at "law-abiding work" and other common-sense places. It is geared toward preventing "spontaneous gatherings" in parking lots and on beaches, etc.

"I think the governor is doing everything he can to wrap his arms around this and stay on top of this," McElveen said. "I think people need to be diligent in doing the things that public health officials are telling them to do because this virus spreads so easily. Hopefully, this thing runs its course, and everyone does what they're supposed to do, and we get back to some degree of normal."

Smith said he's most concerned with false information being shared on social media, which is causing a sense of panic and uneasiness. Reliable sources are key.

"I would encourage everybody to go to South Carolina's DHEC website and other health agencies and hospitals around this area for the information," Smith said.

"We're all in this together," McElveen said. "Hopefully, we can get through this thing sooner than later, but a lot of that is going to depend on us and how we conduct ourselves in these next couple weeks. This is not a vacation. We need to get this over with and get back to our normal lives as fast as we can. This is temporary; it's not going to last forever."

The Sumter Item has created a special centralized homepage for our coronavirus coverage. Go to www.TheItem.com/coronavirus to find all our local coverage, including lists of resources and links to reliable websites, a list of local restaurants offering takeout services, tips and resources for grocery shoppers and parents with at-home children.