House approves its version of South Carolinas' $9B budget
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina House passed its version of the state's $9 billion budget on Wednesday, approving raises for teachers and nearly all state employees after fierce debate in which Democrats complained Republicans weren't considering their changes.
Legislators approved the spending plan 100-2 around 11 a.m. Wednesday, about nine hours after giving the plan key approval in a 14-hour debate that started Tuesday and continued into the wee hours of the morning.
A combination of increasing tax revenues as the state grows and other money from one-time places gave lawmakers an additional $1 billion to spend next fiscal year.
The budget, which now heads to the Senate, includes $159 million to raise teacher salaries by 4 percent, $41 million to provide state workers earning less than $100,000 with a 2 percent pay raise and $40 million for new voting machines.
It also would pay each South Carolina income taxpayer a $50 rebate connected symbolically to the $61 million income tax windfall the state will get from the person who won $878 million in last October's Mega Millions drawing.
There is $85 million set aside for a new fund for the Commerce Department to help bring business to poor, rural areas with struggling schools where the money can go toward water and sewer or buildings and $61 million for repairs and maintenance on state buildings that have been put off or delayed.
The House did little to change the plan crafted by budget writers. Instead, much of the debate was over Democratic amendments that Republican leadership told its members to avoid supporting, according to Republican Rep. Jonathon Hill of Townville. He said the instructions were given in a party meeting.
Majority Leader Gary Simrill said Hill's comments mischaracterized their meeting and missed the point, which was specific to a $61 million income tax windfall the state expects from the $878 million lump sum that will be paid to the winner of last year's Mega Millions lottery.
"This one-time windfall has not been certified and, as of yet, the funds have not been received," said Simrill, a Republican from Rock Hill. "We expected amendments from our Democrat colleagues about how to spend this money. It's unwise to allocate money until it has been certified."
A Democratic proposal to use $23 million to give state workers paid less than $50,000 an additional 2 percent raise failed on a 76-37 vote.
"If we want to put our money where our mouth is, we would pass this amendment knowing that this will not break the bank," said Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg. "Finally, let's decide that 2019 is the year that we will do more for our state employees than to just give them lip service."
Two other Democratic budget amendments to reduce class sizes in schools were rejected. Rep. Russell Ott of St. Matthews asked the House to restore state-mandated student-to-teacher ratios, which were suspended a decade ago during budget cuts in the Great Recession, while Rep. Wendy Brawley of Hopkins offered another amendment requiring one teacher for every 15 students in kindergarten to third-grade classrooms in rural schools. Brawley said smaller class sizes are especially helpful in rural districts with large populations of African-American students.
"We know reduction in class size really does work," Brawley said.
The House also spent several hours on abortion as Republicans introduced a proposal, passed 84-31, that would prevent state money to go toward Planned Parenthood to pay for abortions, citing Gov. Henry McMaster's similar executive order last year. Federal law already prohibits federal Medicaid money from being used to pay for abortions with exceptions for cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.
Democratic Rep. Justin Bamberg questioned the wisdom of placing a proposal in the state's budget that is already part of an ongoing federal lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood against the state of South Carolina based on McMaster's actions.
"What sense does it make to even bother touching this issue if it's a subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit," Bamberg said.
Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.