S.C. Lawmakers set to pass budget plan

abeam@thestate.comJune 15, 2013 

  • Budget compromises Budget negotiators – three from the S.C. House and three from the state Senate – made several decisions Friday about the state budget, including:

    • Deciding to spend $26 million to expand 4-year-old kindergarten into 17 low-income school districts; 65 percent of the money would go to public schools and 35 percent would go to private schools

    • Refusing to sell the state’s two airplanes, but banning colleges and universities from using the planes for athletic recruiting

    • Saying it is OK for state agencies and local governments to hire State House lobbyists

    • Killing a proviso that would have allowed the state health plan to pay for telemedicine, a service that allows doctors to treat patients via video conferencing

    • Killing a proviso that would have required the governor to develop an identity-theft protection plan

    • Approving an Identity Theft Reimbursement Fund that would allow the state to reimburse people who lost money because their personal information was stolen from the Department of Revenue

    • Killing a proviso that would have awarded state scholarships based on a uniform, 10-point grading scale

    • Deciding not to set aside $5 million for a new statewide electronic voting system

    • Deciding not to increase lobbyist registration fees by $100

— Budget negotiators reached a tentative deal Friday on road funding and education that appears to clear the way for the state’s $22.7 billion spending plan, set to take effect July 1.

According to the deal, the state:

• Would borrow up to $500 million to repair interstates and primary roads. The deal also would spend $41 million to repair secondary roads – roads that are not eligible for federal highway money. Whatever money the state has left in nonrecurring dollars would go to repair state-owned bridges.

• Would spend $26 million to expand a 4-year-old kindergarten program into 17 low-income school districts, where at least 75 percent of students qualify for government-paid health insurance or free and reduced-price lunches. Sixty-five percent of the money would go to public schools, while 35 percent would go to private schools. Also, the state would offer a tax deduction – up to 60 percent of the donor’s tax liability – for the first $8 million in donations to scholarships for disabled students to attend private schools.

The deal does not include vouchers for poor parents to send their children to private schools, as was proposed in the House’s version of the budget.

The compromise clears the two largest hurdles to reaching a compromise on the state budget. Budget negotiators plan to meet again Monday to finalize the agreement so the General Assembly can approve it formally on Tuesday.

“We’ve got some selling we need to do to our folks over the weekend,” state Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said of the education deal, which does not include the vouchers that many in the House wanted. But, White added, the House got 35 percent of the 4K money to go to private schools – up from the 18 percent the Senate was proposing – and it got $8 million for tax deductions. That is up from the $5 million the Senate wanted.

“We’ve got some good give and take with the 4K,” he said.

The road deal is the first time in years that the state has dedicated general fund tax dollars to road repairs.

South Carolina maintains its roads with a mix of federal money and state gas taxes, which – at 16 cents a gallon – are the third lowest in the country. State transportation officials estimate the state needs $29 billion in new spending over the next 20 years to cover all of its road repair needs. That figure that has led many business groups to pressure the Legislature to spend more on roads.

While lawmakers agreed on road and education funding, the House and Senate still are divided over pay raises for state workers.

The Senate has proposed a 1 percent pay raise for state workers to offset a scheduled 0.5 percent increase in the retirement contributions those workers will pay and increases in health care deductibles of as much as 20 percent. But senators only set aside $15 million for the raises, less than half of the amount that state agencies would need to pay them.

House lawmakers did not budget pay raises, instead paying for 100 percent of the increase in state employees’ health premiums.

“The pay raise was a huge issue on the Senate side,” said Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington.

Also on Friday, lawmakers refused to sell the state’s two publicly owned airplanes.

The state Senate voted overwhelmingly to sell the state’s two airplanes after years of public scandals involving lawmakers and governors. But House lawmakers voted to keep the planes

White and state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, blocked selling the planes Friday, arguing they are an important tool in economic-development efforts to recruit businesses to South Carolina.

“We stymie ourselves by seeking the lowest common denominator of thought rather than the higher ideals,” Simrill said. “From that perspective, I think we would be very short-sighted if we sold the aircraft.”

State Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said the politicians who use the planes – not the planes themselves – are the problem.

“Politicians are using the state plane as their play toy. And it’s been proven on both sides of the aisle for as long as I’ve been down here,” said Peeler, who has been in the state Senate for 32 years.

Budget negotiators did agree on one thing: banning colleges and universities from using state planes for athletic recruiting. That issue surfaced after Clemson University’s football coaches used the planes on recruiting trips – trips for which the university reimbursed the state.

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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