COLUMBIA — Any decisions on how to pay for new school buses in South Carolina, whether to shorten the vetting process for new building projects on university campuses and when to consolidate schools in Orangeburg County are likely to be put on hold for now.
Saturday marks a new year for the state government and its accountants, but with South Carolina lawmakers not scheduled to return to the Statehouse anytime soon, decisions about whether to override 41 vetoes by Gov. Henry McMaster may have to wait until next year.
That leaves some proposals and grants in limbo until lawmakers vote on the vetoes.
The Legislature's decision not to drive back to Columbia for a special session won't have a huge financial impact on the state's new $8 billion budget that begins July 1. McMaster's vetoes put a stop on about $56 million in spending.
But it will delay votes that would decide: if $350,000 in art-related grants and $3.25 million in sports marketing grants can be distributed; whether $20.5 million in excess lottery proceeds is put toward the state's aging fleet of buses; and if the Commission on Higher Education is stripped of its authority to review college construction projects.
For students, parents and teachers in Orangeburg County, it also means McMaster's veto of a separate bill that would consolidate the areas' three school districts won't be reviewed until next session.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate say they don't see anything pressing enough to call state lawmakers back.
"The vetoes were pretty minuscule in the grand scheme of things and there hasn’t been any interest that I have heard to address them immediately," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said.
Some Democrats, however, are unhappy that lawmakers aren't returning, and question whether it sets a bad precedent.
“I don’t know what the reasoning is for not coming back in?” said Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews. “It just leaves a lot of uncertainty out there for the next six months."
Everyone seemingly agrees the biggest issue that needs to be handled is the lottery funding that lawmakers want to use to replace older buses that have, on occasion, caught fire. But since that money won't be available until excess money starts to come in, Republican leaders say they can wait to override the governor early next year.
The Governor's Office has said McMaster vetoed the lottery money for buses because he believes revenue should be put towards tuition scholarships for South Carolinians. Jeff Schilz, the interim director for the Commission on Higher Education, said those scholarship needs are expected to increase by $13.5 million in the next year, according to a letter sent to the governor's office.
"The governor agrees that addressing the state's aging school bus fleet is an important issue across the state, but he also thinks that in order to address it, we should do it with ... funds that we know are going to be available," said Brian Symmes, McMaster's spokesperson. "It shouldn't be money that we are hoping comes our way."
But Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature see the lottery funding and unclaimed prize money as the only way to upgrade school buses before next July, since a proposal to issue $30 million worth of bonds for school buses was derailed after McMaster demanded that borrowed money be put toward road projects in the state.
The decision not to override McMaster's vetoes until next year will also allow the Commission on Higher Education to continue to review campus projects, which state universities have pushed back against in recent years arguing that it is a duplicative layer of oversight.
It's unclear if that veto would be overridden, however, since members of the Senate considered nixing that part of the budget on one of the last days of the legislative session.
For some lawmakers, the biggest letdown of not returning to the Statehouse has nothing to do with the budget.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, says he and other elected officials from the county are still pushing for a return this year so they can get their school consolidation bill to McMaster's desk.
If they have to wait until next year, he says, it will make the school consolidations more costly, since the county will have to elect school board members this fall and again the following year.
“We’ve got a job to do. I don’t understand why we’re not coming back," Hutto said. “It won’t be the absolute end of the world. We’ll still consolidate. But it could be more efficient."