Senate Begins Debate on $9B S.C. Budget
Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 4:07PM
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate on Wednesday began its discussions on how the state should spend its nearly $9 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year and lawmakers have said their priorities this year include providing salary increases for some of its state workers.

The plan, approved earlier this month by the Senate Finance Committee, allows for nearly $1 billion more in spending than the last budget. Senators started the day by providing an overview of each section of the budget including provisions for K-12 education, higher education and criminal justice.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman of Florence said this year's budget displays their commitment in the classroom and said finalizing the budget will require both negotiation and friendly debate.

"This will be a work of compromise. Please keep that in mind as we go through the budget," Leatherman said. "Let us debate this budget in a spirit of congeniality."

Lawmakers said raising the pay of state workers was a priority, including allocating $159 million to increase the minimum starting teacher salary from $32,000 to $35,000 and to give all teachers a 4% pay raise. "This budget displays our commitment to the classroom," Leatherman said on the Senate floor.

The finance committee agreed to spend $41 million to cover a 2% cost of living pay raise for state workers as well as $50 million to cover state employee health and dental insurance increases.

State employees who make $70,000 and less a year also would get a $600 bonus. The one-time bonus would cost $20 million, according to the Senate committee's plan.

One lawmaker said he plans to introduce language in the budget to further legislative action on offshore drilling. During a news conference Wednesday morning, Sen. Chip Campsen of Charleston said he plans to introduce a provision in the budget that would ban onshore infrastructure associated with drilling and seismic testing for oil and gas off the South Carolina coast.

"A bill would be better, but there really is no way to get a bill passed this year because of the procedural impediments that exist," Campsen said. "The only way to get this in place that circumvents those procedural impediments is through a budget proviso."

The Republican lawmaker said offshore drilling does not make economic sense, could threaten the future of tourism in the state and said it was imperative for lawmakers to act soon. The provision would prevent the Department of Health and Environmental Control or local government entities from using any funds to approve license or permits associated with offshore drilling for oil or gas or for seismic testing.

Gov. Henry McMaster, Attorney General Alan Wilson and both Republican and Senate lawmakers were also at the news conference.

Other provisions in the Senate's budget would pay $25 million in one-time money for South Carolina farmers hurt by flooding caused by Hurricanes Michael and Florence last year. Additionally, $40 million would go toward purchasing a new statewide voting system; $10 million would be spent to improve prison safety; and nearly $44 million would be spent to freeze college tuition for in-state students.

The Senate plan also takes the $64 million the state expects to receive in income tax paid by the winner of October's $878 million Mega Millions jackpot, combine it with an additional $6 million and send $50 rebate checks to the address on every South Carolina income tax form.

Leatherman told senators last week to expect a few days of long debate to pass the budget before the end of the week.

Article originally appeared on The Anderson Observer (http://andersonobserver.com/).
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