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South Carolina lawmakers closer to passing $9 billion budget

March 13, 2019
South Carolina lawmakers continue deliberations Tuesday, March 12 at the Statehouse on their $9 billion state budget in Columbia, S.C. House members started their second day of budget talks after spending the day before approving dozens of sections of the budget by large margins and without debate. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina House is closer to passing their version of the state’s $9 billion spending plan Wednesday as Democrats struggled to make changes in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Legislators voted 112-1 in favor of giving the bill a second reading.

Work on Tuesday focused on disputed budget areas and amendments after the House spent Monday approving dozens of sections of the budget by large margins and without debate. This year, lawmakers had nearly $1 billion of new funds. The spending plan includes provisions to allocate $44 million to freeze tuition for in-state college students, $40 million for new a voting system and $159 million to raise teacher salaries by 4 percent.

The tone for the day was set not long after debate started, when Rep. Jonathon Hill of Townville said his fellow Republicans in House leadership told the party’s members to avoid supporting Democratic-led amendments.

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.”

The first major debate Tuesday centered on a proposal to give state workers who make less than $100,000 a 2 percent raise. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter suggested an amendment that would use $23 million to give state employees who make less than $50,000 an additional 2 percent raise, but the measure 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,” the Orangeburg Democrat said. “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 asked the House to restore state-mandated student-to-teacher ratios, which were suspended a decade ago during budget cuts in the Great Recession.

“We need to do this because in some areas of South Carolina, classroom sizes are unimaginable,” the Democrat from St. Matthews said. “I believe (the proviso) has created quite the burden for our teachers and kind of short-changed our students.”

Democratic 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. “We’re simply focusing on those schools we claim we care about.”

Democrats also offered an amendment requiring the University of South Carolina to use a portion of its budget to recruit African-American students to its professional schools. The House voted in favor.

Several hours into budget discussions, House Republicans introduced a proposal that steered the conversation to abortion, an issue that has been raised during budget talks for the last several years. Republican representatives Ashley Trantham of Pelzer and Josiah Magnuson of Campobello introduced an amendment that would prevent state money to go toward Planned Parenthood to pay for abortions, citing Gov. Henry McMaster’s similar executive order last year, however 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.

The House adopted the amendment with a vote of 84-31.

Members of the House will reconvene later Wednesday morning to give the budget third reading. From there, the House’s version of the spending plan will go to the Senate for lawmakers to discuss in the coming weeks.