Education tops roads in Haley's budget Highway funding plan still not ready


COLUMBIA - Addressing the needs of the state's crumbling roads took a back seat to education spending in Gov. Nikki Haley's budget plan announced Monday.

For a second year in a row, education was Haley's top priority, this time focusing on a dire need for teachers in rural areas. Overall, Haley's proposed budget calls for spending $6.9 billion during the 2015-16 fiscal year, up from this year's $6.7 billion.

When it comes to education, Haley presented a plan that would boost how much South Carolina pays per student by $80 to $2,200. It also calls for nearly $40 million for reading coaches to expand the reading initiative that was implemented in August.

Further, Haley is pushing for a teaching initiative that would help recruit teachers to rural districts by providing incentives that would either help them pay off their student loans or pay for their college. The state also would pay for a graduate degree for those who already have a bachelor's.

"How do we retain those teachers, get them in the districts that we need them, but at the same time reward them for the fact that we get the fact that they're going into an area that may not have a movie theater, may not have the quality of life you'd have in a city," Haley said. "I think this would do it."

The plan, which would only apply to a specific number of rural districts and would be phased in over the next 10 years, also calls for pay incentives for those who teach in rural districts. Yet, for the upcoming year, the budget would only allocate $1.5 million and would be available on a limited basis.

"Last year, when Governor Haley celebrated historic education reform with teachers, students, lawmakers and business leaders, she promised that it was just the beginning - and we couldn't be more excited that the governor's executive budget invests even more in South Carolina's schools, especially in the recruitment and retention of teachers in rural districts," said Superintendent of Education-elect Molly Spearman in a written statement. "I look forward to working with the governor over the next four years to make sure our students, who are our future workforce, have the resources they need to achieve their hopes and dreams."

Meanwhile, Haley's proposed budget also calls for $61 million for the Department of Transportation, money that would be funneled from the general fund and that comes from the tax the state makes when vehicles are sold. As for the road-funding plan she promised to make public in January, Haley said it would come by "the end of this month." Lawmakers have been told that a long-term fix could cost $40 billion.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said he's looking forward to the publishing of Haley's plan to see whether it entails moving money from one pot to another or if new money will be going to the agency. DOT staff have maintained that the agency is facing an estimated $30 billion shortfall over the next 20 years.

"Any time the governor is willing to support more money for roads, I will fully support that," Grooms said. "I've always supported using the sales tax of automobiles to go to the DOT. ... It's an indirect user fee."

The Department of Social Services also would receive $7.1 million to continue the agency improvement plan announced in September by DSS' former acting chief Amber Gillum.

Haley's plan calls for 202 more workers, in addition to 60 caseworker assistants who would free up caseworkers to spend more time interacting with families and children. The extra cash would also cover a 10 percent increase in pay for all human service workers, including those in child protective services and economic services.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, praised Haley's funding efforts for DSS, adding that it sets the tone for the Legislature. Lourie is one of three senators who serves on the Senate's DSS Oversight Subcommittee.

"We've got a lot of work to do to rebuild the agency, and the governor's support is essential," Lourie said. "Making this a priority in the budget is an important first step and we look forward to working with her, and with members of the House and the Senate to improve the Department of Social Services."

On Monday, Haley thanked the House of Representatives' staff for closely working with her office on the budget. Traditionally, governors present their budgets to outline their priorities, but the General Assembly writes its own spending plans.

"Our office and the House have the same priorities," Haley said. "We understand that we can't have everything that we want. ... But we do appreciate is that they actually look at our budget. The sad part is that it goes to Senate and then it gets thrown out the window."

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.