COLUMBIA - When S.C. Sen. Paul Thurmond took to the floor earlier this week, he railed for hours against an increase in expense reimbursements for members of the General Assembly.
Senators agreed with him that it wasn't the right time for $1,000 a month more for expenses and they voted the measure down.
Until late Wednesday, when senators pushed through the increase by a vote of 25-20.
Members of the House and Senate haven't had a raise for in-district expenses in decades. Some said the current $1,000 or so per month for in-district expenses isn't enough to travel around their districts, pay telephone bills and deal with other assorted expenses. Gas prices have increased markedly since the original amount was set in the mid-1990s.
Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, introduced the measure and voted for it. Charleston-area senators were split. Republican Sens. Paul Campbell and Larry Grooms voted for it, along with Democrats Clementa Pinckney and Marlon Kimpson. Republican Sens. Thurmond, Sean Bennett and Chip Campsen voted against the increase.
The original vote failed 19-24.
Cleary voted against it the first time but introduced the measure on Wednesday. He inserted a provision that made him more comfortable with it, he said. The extra $1,000 increase for expenses is optional.
Thurmond said a later vote takes the total of $2 million from the state's debt service payments. He said it was also inappropriate to propose instituting the expense increase in the same year senators are serving. "Instead of paying more off our debt, they chose to give themselves an in-district expense increase," Thurmond said. "I'm somewhat bewildered that a majority of the body felt they needed a pay raise. You certainly shouldn't have it instrumented in the year you're serving."
Cleary said that the General Assembly shouldn't just be for the rich or retired. "We need people from everyday life," he said. "I think it was the right thing to do and if my constituents knew all the facts and not slanted facts, they would say 'Hey, it was the right thing to do.'"
Kimpson said that he plans to donate his $10,400 salary to charity but understands that many senators need the additional funds to carry out their duties.
"Since the salary is so low for almost a full-time job, the in-district expense helps you be able to accomplish your duties as a state senator. Those who live on their salaries, it's hard to live on what they give you from the Senate," Kimpson said.
He added that both he and Thurmond are successful lawyers. "He (Thurmond) comes from a very legendary family. He appears to be living well. But everybody isn't like that. Not everybody is as blessed as we are."
The budget process is still in relatively early stages and Thurmond said the increase may not survive scrutiny from negotiations with House members and Gov. Nikki Haley's veto pen.