COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House on Wednesday sent the Senate a $6.3 billion spending plan for state taxes that boosts school spending, hires law enforcement officers and fixes bridges with load restrictions.
The House voted 116-1 on third reading of the budget plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The chamber then approved 119-0 a separate measure distributing $113 million from this year’s rainy day fund.
Votes sealing up the House plans followed an all-day debate Tuesday that centered on Democrats’ attempts to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law to cover hundreds of thousands of additional poor adults. The House defeated several attempts along party lines.
Total designations in the two bills tally $22.7 billion when including all revenue sources, including federal money, agency fees, grants and reserves. That’s nearly $585 million above the current fiscal year, or 2.5 percent.
The proposal increases a main source of money for public schools by $77 million, boosting the so-called base student cost that primarily funds salaries to $2,101 per student, up by $89. That spending is still $670 less per student than called for under a 36-year-old state formula that’s adjusted yearly, but advocates of schools recognized the hundreds of millions it would take to get there was unrealistic. Legislators have said for years they want to overhaul the state’s outdated formulas.
“Overall, we’re pleased,” said Scott Price with the state School Boards Association. “We wish they would’ve met their obligation, but we did pretty well.”
Education items fully funded in the plan include $4,218 for each 4-year-old in the state’s limited full-day program for at-risk students. That had fallen by $550 due to student growth.
Superintendent Mick Zais also thanked the House for providing an additional $10 million for parts and fuel to keep school buses on the road.
“They provided a good chunk for maintaining the oldest bus fleet in the nation,” said Zais spokesman Jay Ragley. “We’re able to maintain the fleet without any real strain.”
But he was disappointed the House funded just $10.5 million of Zais’ $46 million request for new buses.
Rep. Kenny Bingham said it was a matter of priorities. Zais’ request would not have increased the base student cost.
“We’ve done everything we possibly could considering the circumstances we had to deal with,” said Bingham, R-Cayce, whose subcommittee wrote the K-12 education budget.
The budget designates nearly $60 million to fix about 20 percent of bridges statewide with weight restrictions. It calls for hiring 25 agents to supervise parolees, 10 natural resource officers and 15 people at the State Law Enforcement Division. It would also add 18 highway troopers through a personnel shift.
The proposal provides raises only to maximum-security prison officers, designating $1.74 million for a 3 percent salary boost to 1,350 corrections officers, as a way to fill those dangerous, low-paying jobs.
Rep. Mike Pitts, whose subcommittee writes the law enforcement budget, said the 2010 sentencing reform law that puts fewer nonviolent offenders in prison has made those jobs even more dangerous by consolidating the “worst of the worst” inmates.
Their pay raises were part of Gov. Nikki Haley’s push to upgrade security and officers’ safety at prisons, following two hostage situations last year at Lee Correctional. The budget gives the Department of Corrections an additional $13 million for items ranging from maintenance to metal detectors — considerable for an agency that ran deficits for several years, partly because legislators didn’t want to appear soft on crime.
The budget plan calls for state employees to pay more for health care. Though it includes an additional $59 million to fully cover the rising cost of health care premiums, employees would pay more out of pocket if they get sick.
Doctor, hospital and pharmacy co-pays, as well as health care deductibles, would increase by 20 percent. An effort by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, on Tuesday to cover those increases by taking money out of insurance reserves failed.
The $113 million in one-time money distributed from this year’s reserves includes $20 million to repay a loan to the Department of Revenue that covered contracts signed after last fall’s massive hacking of millions of taxpayers’ personal data. It also sets aside $25 million to improve cyber-security across state agencies and extend credit monitoring to taxpayers who sign up for the state-covered Experian service by March 31.