S.C. budget has surplus despite shutdown from coronavirus


COLUMBIA - South Carolina appears to be finishing last budget year with a little extra money in its bank accounts even after the economic shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economists who predict the state budget said Thursday.

The final income tax and sales tax money trickling in from July deadlines pushed the surplus for the budget year that ended in June to about $220 million, said state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office Executive Director Frank Rainwater.

That means South Carolina won't have to dip into savings or make cuts to balance the books for the budget year that ended in June.

But what do the predictions for the next budget year that started July 1 look like?

"Stay tuned. I don't know if we are getting ready to go into a comedy or a horror show or a sit-com," Rainwater said. "There is still uncertainty on how to revise the forecast for fiscal year '21."

Cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in the state. South Carolina reported 49 additional deaths Thursday. Since the pandemic began, some 1,294 deaths have been reported from the virus, with 40 still under investigation, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control reported.

South Carolina, which is 23rd in the U.S. in population, has averaged 41 COVID-19 deaths a day over the past two weeks. Only Arizona, California, Florida and Texas have averaged more.

South Carolina reported 1,538 newly diagnosed cases of the virus Thursday. The state has reported fewer than 1,480 cases just one day since June 30. For more than a month, South Carolina has been in the top four states in the U.S. for the 14-day average of new cases adjusted by population.

Economists are trying to take it all into account. The roughest of estimates have the state collecting about $161 million more in this year's budget than the $9.4 billion it took in taxes, fees and other revenues that the General Assembly gets to spend.

But the simple modeling of taking last year's budget, estimating the growth or shrinking of the economy and adding or subtracting that amount likely won't work with all the uncertainty over COVID-19, said Rainwater, whose agency is responsible for predicting how much money lawmakers will have to spend.

There is the $3 trillion in federal stimulus money already poured into the nation's economy to consider and how much more money Congress may give in business loans, expanded unemployment benefits and help to state and local governments, Rainwater said.

Also the agency staff is trying to predict confidence and behavior of consumers in an unpredictable time. "Even if businesses, restaurants and beaches are open, are people going?" Rainwater said.

The agency plans to spend the next month coming up with its estimates. They will present their report Aug. 31, just over two weeks before lawmakers meet in a two-week September special session to pass a new budget.

State agencies are currently spending at the levels from the previous budget until the new spending plan is passed.

The South Carolina House did pass a new budget in March just before the COVID-19 shutdown, but it was based on the state collecting $1.9 billion in extra revenue as the economy boomed.

That budget included $213 million to give every public school teacher in South Carolina a $3,000 raise, $100 million for repairs to rural highways, $100 million to improve safety at state prisons and $248 million in income tax relief and credits that will either have to be scrapped or reduced if revenue estimates are severely cut.

Just like every Thursday since the pandemic started, South Carolina again got bad economic news. More than 14,300 people filed unemployment claims for the week ending July 18, the state Department of Employment and Workforce reported.

It was the smallest number of new claims for a week in the 18 weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March - a level of unemployment claims seen only once in the decade before the virus started to spread.

Since the major COVID-19 shutdown, about 685,000 people have filed jobless claims and the state has distributed nearly $3.4 billion in unemployment benefits, the agency said.