If we were illegal immigrants, we’d be worried about the Statehouse’s plans for reform in 2008. If we were smokers, money-burning school district bureaucrats, or future perps banking on parole, we’d focus our attention on more pressing concerns — like the latest teen celebrity’s baby bump.

Back to work Jan. 8, legislators will be working from gavel to gavel on immigration reform (or at least what little the state has control over), promising action within weeks, not months.

But pledges by some legislators not to raise taxes and a paltry $92 million in annual dollars to spend make for what may best be described as an elaborate tailgating party for the 2009 session.

“It’s going to be one of the most difficult budget years,” says Senate Finance Chair Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence). “My message would be: Don’t get stars in your eyes.”

The budget picture is complicated because of concessions made in last year’s property tax/sales tax swap. The state cut the sales tax on groceries and the lowest income tax bracket, along with tax breaks for small businesses, which pulled more than $200 million from state coffers. Even with those dollars, high-priority budget needs would go without (the legislature’s promise to fully fund education alone would cost $91.3 million of that $92 million), and there are those who would argue it’s better the money stay in your pocket than get into theirs. What the bare-bones budget means is that taxpayers shouldn’t expect the word “new” beside any department request.

Immigration

What we will see is traction on illegal immigration.

“I see a renewed interest in both parties,” says House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston).

Last year, the Senate approved a bill restricting the hiring of illegals, beefing up state enforcement, and prohibiting most state assistance programs. The House introduced similar legislation this week. Another bill introduced by Senate leader Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston) would require that all materials used by state agencies be printed only in English. The demand seems reasonable considering McConnell’s frequent example of the DMV. But it’s unclear what impact this requirement would have on other programs where it’s important not only to recognize words, but to understand them, like a bias complaint or police report.

After those two bills, it’s hard to say what’s left that the state can address.

“Our experience is that there’s only so much we can do,” says McConnell, who has called for a Constitutional Congress to address the immigration issue. “The problem is in Washington. It’s like Washington fiddles while the state budgets burn.”

While some, including the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, are pressing for a delay on state reforms until Washington takes on the issue, Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens) points to neighboring states like Georgia that have already implemented anti-illegal immigration measures.

“All we’re going to do is invite problems if we don’t address it,” he says.

Cigarette Tax

Proving there has been traction on the issue, most legislators understand that an increase is necessary in the cigarette tax (from a national low of 7 cents to about 38 cents). A version of the bill passed the House last year.

“I think there’s broad support in the Senate to raise the cigarette tax,” Martin says.

The smoky room the bill now has to wade through involves what to do with the money. Senate finance leaders are committed to using it to address health care costs.

“I have no interest in putting cigarette money toward anything else,” says Leatherman. “It’ll go to health care, or it won’t get out of committee.”

The problem is that Gov. Mark Sanford and others refuse to support the hike unless the money is used to offset a new income tax cut. While some are looking for common ground, Martin says it may require patient folks to explain to Sanford that state money could prevent businesses from paying for a perpetually sick workforce. There’s reason to hope for results, but we’d save that resolution to quit smoking until 2009.

No Parole

State Attorney General Henry McMaster, who really can’t make a statement these days without others considering his gubernatorial ambitions, has called for an end to parole. A bill has already been introduced, but legislators recognize a need to offset this bill with a way to keep less violent offenders out of jail.

“If we’re going to hold on to the violent ones longer, we’ve got to make room for them,” says McConnell.

One solution will likley be an expanded drug court program, now used in some of South Carolina’s urban regions to keep first offenders out of prison. It may not be the will of the legislature, but the cost that prevents this one from passing in a tight budget year.

Education Finance Reform

State funding formulas were created decades ago when every district got a little something from the state. A few years back, those formulas turned against Charleston County and others, leaving booming coastal school districts to not only fend for themselves, but to underfund rural districts. Special one-time allocations over the last few years have protected Charleston from losing millions in state aid. A tighter budget year, and an expanding list of affected districts, may force not only another temporary fix, but a permanent solution. Harrell has House members researching funding solutions, but, in lieu of the ability to grow the funding pie, it’ll be school district vs. school district for state dollars. It sounds like a battle the Lowcountry’s leading legislators are ready for.

“We’re not going home with less money,” says McConnell.

But results from the research committee aren’t expected until November, likely pushing any long-term solution into 2009.

Other Issues

Legislators are looking to reform the state’s DUI laws by beefing up penalties for multiple offenses and creating a treatment program for convicted drivers, including a breathalizer hooked up to their car. Legislators recognize that improved highway safety also includes increased enforcement and road repairs, but it’s hard to imagine where that money would come from.

Without the support of either Harrell or McConnell, a ban on payday lenders (similar to a ban in North Carolina) doesn’t seem likely. “There’s a market out there for emergency money,” McConnell says, but both legislators expect increased regulations for the industry.

Calls for ramped-up fire regulations after the Sofa Super Store fire — particularly, modifying old buildings with sprinkler systems — isn’t looking too promising, either. “It’s important we learn from the experience,” McConnell says. “But I think it’s also important that we don’t overreact.” Some businesses would be hard-pressed to make those kinds of changes, he says. Instead, McConnell is calling for tax incentives for businesses that voluntarily tap in to sprinkler systems.

Harrell will be addressing transparency among earmarks, requiring legislators to identify their pet projects and give an explanation on the necessity of the spending. McConnell promises legislation capping state spending.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will wonder about the root of Dakota Fanning’s mood swings, Sandjaya’s unusual food cravings, and that extra weight Hannah Montana is wearing.