BC-SC-XGR--State Budget, 1st Ld-Writethru,460Senate Finance budget plan includes 4K expansion

COLUMBIA - The Senate Finance Committee has advanced a budget proposal that expands 4-year-old kindergarten and gives legislators a raise.

The committee voted 16-3 late Wednesday on a $7 billion spending plan for state taxes that provides legislators another $1,000 monthly for in-district travel expenses, doubling that yearly stipend to $24,000 for each of the Legislature's 170 members.

Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman says legislators haven't had a raise since 1995, and it costs a lot more to travel around their districts, many of which span multiple counties.

Legislators' annual salary is $10,400. They also get paid mileage for traveling to Columbia.

Senators voted 14-4 to give themselves the raise. Those voting no were GOP Sens. John Courson, Tom Davis and Harvey Peeler and Democratic Sen. Joel Lourie.

Peeler, the Senate majority leader, said that meant he couldn't vote for the budget: "I feel that strongly. I'm not in favor."

The full Senate is expected to start debating the budget plan next Tuesday.

It provides an additional $24.5 million to expand full-day 4-year-old kindergarten to 14 more districts. The House's budget contains no expansion, but rather maintains the state-paid program for at-risk 4-year-olds in 51 districts. Like the House plan, the Senate Finance package also puts nearly $30 million toward reading coaches in elementary school.

Those are two components of a bill the Senate passed earlier this month that aims to boost students' chances of success through expansion of 4K and early intervention in reading.

"I think that's a bright and shining star of this budget," said Peeler, sponsor of the "Read to Succeed" bill.

Senate Finance's plan provides $4.5 million more for school buses than the House, for $17.5 million.

It also restores more money to public colleges. The House plan cut a total of $31 million from the state's designations to public colleges, compared to the current budget, said Courson, chairman of the Finance subcommittee over higher education. His panel's recommendations restored about $25 million of that.

"We've got good news but not quite as good as we'd like," he said.

The Senate Finance plan follows the House proposal to provide state employees a 1.5 percent cost-of-living raise and cover the rising cost of their health care premiums. The latter costs about $57 million. Employees would see a slight rise in their out-of-pocket expenses through co-pays and deductibles.

"That's a pretty good deal," Leatherman said. "Employees tell me if you've got to choose between taking care of my health premiums and a pay raise, they tell me to take care of health premiums."

The Senate package also tentatively provides every state employee a $300 bonus. That's part of a list of items the budget could fund if the state's economic advisers adjust their revenue projections before the fiscal year ends.