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House overrides McMaster's vetoes of school bus money, sending question to Senate

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The House is considering Tuesday whether to override Gov. Henry McMaster's veto of more than $20 million for school buses. File. 

COLUMBIA — The House voted Tuesday to override Gov. Henry McMaster's vetoes for school bus funding and send the education agency more than $20 million in state lottery money to replace hundreds of decades-old, fire-prone buses. 

The House votes sent the question to the Senate, which is expected to vote Wednesday. 

If that chamber completes the overrides, the Department of Education will immediately order about 250 buses. They should arrive within six months, putting them on the streets for next school year, said spokesman Ryan Brown.  

Even with that purchase, 350 of those rear-engine buses bought in 1995 and 1996 that are causing the most problems will still be transporting students to classes, state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman said.

"We do have an outdated fleet," House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said in urging an override. "This would get us moving in the right direction."

Some Democrats urged their colleagues to reject the bus money in protest, following a vote that struck $5 million from health care for the poor. White said a shortfall in estimates of state cash not coming from the lottery meant that money wasn't available to spend for the health-care earmark. The House ultimately voted 107-8 and 112-1 to override the bus vetoes, on $17.5 million and $3 million, respectively.

Spearman said she was relieved.

"I would've been devastated had this not happened," she said. "If we can't put the safety of our children going to school as a priority, then who are we as a state?"      

The bus vetoes were among 41 items — totaling $56 million — that McMaster struck last summer from the state's current budget of roughly $8 billion, which ends June 30. The Legislature opted not to return for a special session to deal with them. Instead, the House took them up on the first day of the 2018 session.  

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The Legislature's budget plan for 2017-18 designated about $30 million total for buses. The money McMaster vetoed came from lottery surpluses — greater-than-expected ticket sales and unclaimed prizes. The education agency has already bought or leased 303 buses with the money not vetoed.  

On Monday, McMaster repeated his opposition to using lottery revenue to buy school buses.

"Of course school buses are a good thing. So are a lot of things," McMaster said. "That's not what (the lottery) was supposed to be used for. Why don't we take lottery money and use it for a thousand different reasons? Because then it wouldn't be there to go for the scholarships."  

The 2001 law that created the state lottery requires the revenue to go toward education, and at least some unclaimed prize money to be designated for new school buses.

But McMaster insists the Legislature "broke faith with the people of South Carolina."

"They shouldn't have done that. What we should do is follow the rules. Don't break your word," he said Monday. 

His opposition dates back to voters' approval in 2000 to change the state constitution to allow a lottery. Voters went to the polls without a law in place that spelled out the details. McMaster said lottery advocates focused on scholarships in marketing efforts.   

McMaster's budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, released Monday, includes an additional $5 million in recurring money for leasing new school buses, doubling that pot of money. He also supports using the state's more than $30 million share of a national Volkswagen settlement on buses.

The education agency is applying for the money, in hopes of using it to replace some of the 800 buses still on the road that date to between 1988 and 1995. They're not as dangerous as the buses that are top priority for replacing, but they're inefficient and emit much more pollution, making them an "ideal match" for the settlement money, Spearman said.  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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