• Senate approves its version of South Carolina's $9B budget

    By: CHRISTINA L. MYERS, Associated Press

    Updated:
    COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina Senate passed its version of the state's $9 billion budget on Thursday, approving several provisions including raises for teachers and nearly all state workers after a sometimes fierce two-day debate.

    Legislators approved the spending plan 38-6. The plan allows for nearly $1 billion more in spending than the last budget, thanks in part to increasing tax revenues.

    The Senate approved key measures crafted by House budget writers, including $159 million allocated to raise teacher salaries by 4% and $41 million to provide state workers a 2% cost of living raise. Senate Finance Committee members also set aside $20 million to provide for an additional $600 bonus for state employees making $70,000 and less.

    Senators also agreed to pay each South Carolina income taxpayer a $50 rebate from the anticipated $61 million income tax windfall the state will get from the winner of October's $878 million Mega Millions winnings. Lawmakers said it's going to cost the state $700,000 to mail the checks.

    Republican Sen. Greg Hembree offered a proposal that would have appropriated the funds toward reducing the unfunded liability of the state's pension plan. The Little River lawmaker said the state needs to funnel resources toward paying down liability over time.

    "I do feel like there is a better way to use this money," Hembree said. "I just don't believe folks back home are going to be impressed with this."

    While some lawmakers agreed that the funds could be allocated toward other budgetary needs, other legislators said the money needs to go back to taxpayers.

    "I don't care if it's just $50," Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort said. "I want as much money as possible put back into the private sector."

    Lawmakers voted to reject Hembree's proposal, 29-15.

    Additional provisions in the Senate's version of the spending plan includes $25 million for South Carolina farmers hurt by flooding caused by Hurricanes Michael and Florence last year, and a provision that would prevent money from the budget to be used for onshore infrastructure associated with drilling and seismic testing for oil and gas off the South Carolina coast.

    Senate lawmakers set aside $50 million, instead of $85 million in the House's version of the budget, for new funds for the Department of Commerce to help bring business to poor, rural areas with struggling school districts to improve building infrastructure, water and sewage, and economic development projects that directly benefit school districts with high poverty rates.

    Other Senate-approved provisions include $40 million for a new statewide voting system and $10 million for facility and safety upgrades for state prisons. Also, up to $2 million of the $10 million appropriated for the School Safety Program will go toward school districts for hiring psychologists, psychiatrists or mental health counselors.

    The Senate will send its version of the budget back to the House where representatives will either concur with the Senate's changes or make additional adjustments of their own. Lawmakers may decide to finalize the budget during conference committee where three legislators from each chamber will hash out their differences in areas in the budget where they disagree.

    Next Up: