South Carolina

Lawmakers set to return to Columbia this week for budget debate


S.C. lawmakers will return to Columbia this week to take up the state’s roughly $7 billion general fund budget, assuming a six-member conference committee can work out the differences between House and Senate spending proposals.

That committee was scheduled to meet Saturday at 10:30 a.m. But that meeting was rescheduled indefinitely “to the call of the chair” as behind-the-scenes discussions continued.

Eleven hours later, at 9:30 p.m., the committee – led by Senate leader and Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson – still had not met.

Other members of the committee are: Sens. Harvey Peeler, the Cherokee County Republican who is Senate majority leader, and Nikki Setzler, the Lexington Democrat who is Senate minority leaders; and state Reps. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, and Mike Pitts, R-Laurens.

The six lawmakers have to work out a compromise on these issues:

▪  Sending $145.9 million, as the House proposes, or $216.4 million, as the Senate proposes, to counties to pay for road repairs.

▪  Hiring 262 new employees at Social Services, including child caseworkers and assistants, as the Senate proposes, or giving existing workers at that embattled agency big raises in an effort to cut down on crippling turnover, as the House proposes.

▪  Hiring more than 100 new state prosecutors, as the Senate proposes, or hiring none, as the House proposed.

The Senate approved hiring 103 new prosecutors at a cost of $7.7 million in an effort to reduce high caseloads. That can produce a backlog of difficult-to-prosecute cases, said 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone.

“Our cases, that we have the responsibility of proving, get weaker and weaker as time goes on,” Stone said, adding that witnesses forget what they have seen, move, or sometimes, die.

In addition, defendants often commit other crimes while they are out of jail on bond awaiting trial, Stone said.

Statewide, prosecutors must deal with more than 114,000 new cases a year, which pile up on cases still pending, said Stone, adding prosecutors handle an average 375 cases a year, including felonies and misdemeanors.

Lawmakers have agreed on:

▪  An $800 one-time bonus for state employees who make less than $100,000 a year.

▪  Spending $70 million in state cash to pay for incentives – including an Interstate 26 interchange – for Volvo. The company is expected to bring 2,000 jobs and have an initial $500 million investment to a Berkeley County site.

The state’s fiscal year starts July 1. However, in case they do not meet that deadline, legislators have passed a continuing resolution to keep state spending at current levels until they can pass a budget.

Once lawmakers pass a budget, which could happen as soon Tuesday, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has five days, excluding Sunday, to veto their spending proposals.

Legislators then will return to Columbia to overturn or sustain those vetoes.

It takes a two-thirds vote of House and Senate members, present and voting, to override a veto. Voting starts in the House. If the House does not override a veto, then it is sustained without ever going to the Senate.

S.C. budget

A six-member committee of House and Senate members must reconcile differing budget proposals, passed by those bodies.

The remaining issues

Roads: Lawmakers must decide whether to send $145.9 million or $216.4 million to S.C. counties to pay for road repairs. The focus on using state surplus money on roads came after lawmakers failed to pass a plan to increase the state’s gas tax to pay for repairs.

Social Services: Senators approved spending roughly $9 million for 262 new Social Services employees, including child caseworkers and assistants. The House proposed giving workers at that embattled agency big raises in an effort to cut down on crippling turnover.

Hiring prosecutors: The Senate proposes adding 103 prosecutors statewide. The House budget adds none.

Already agreed on

Employee bonus: State employees who make less than $100,000 will get a one-time $800 bonus.

Volvo incentives: Paying in cash for incentives for Volvo, including an Interstate 26 interchange. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has advocated for borrowing $123 million to pay for incentives. Critics have said that borrowing plan will cost $87 million in interest.

K-12 education: The amount schools receive for each student will increase by $100 to $2,220. While far less than state law says schools should get, it is an added $94 million for schools.