COLUMBIA — To budget or not to budget. That is the question for the special South Carolina legislative session that starts Tuesday.
Senators want to pass a 2020-21 state budget. House leaders, in lockstep with Gov. Henry McMaster, don't — setting up a battle of wills between Republican heavyweights at the Statehouse.
The losers could be teachers, state employees, prisons and schools.
State revenue forecasters have given legislators an additional $861 million to spend in the fiscal year that's already 2½ months gone.
That's far less than the $1.8 billion extra legislators thought they'd have before the pandemic sent the economy in a freefall.
But it's not nothing. And South Carolina's certainly better off than other states in a budget hole.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, who holds the most control over the state's checkbooks, figures there's enough extra money to honor at least some obligations and help jumpstart a rebound, while still leaving more than $550 million untouched to potentially plug shortfalls in case the bottom keeps falling.
The powerful chairman essentially disregarded McMaster's request last month to wait until at least January, when legislators return for the 2021 session, to craft a budget. Lawmakers had agreed in the spring to keep spending at 2019-20 levels so government could remain open when the new budget year started July 1.
House leaders are echoing the governor's cautionary tale to set all the extra money aside.
In a virtual meeting Friday of the House budget-writing committee, several House leaders repeatedly used the phrase "tread carefully."
"We just don't know how COVID is affecting this economy, how it will continue affecting this economy," said the House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter. "The only thing I know is that we're at a state of uncertainty.
"I want to do a budget also, but what I'm concerned about is doing a budget and trading temporary relief for long-term harm to this state and economy."
Legislators created the special session back in the spring, expecting that surely by September, the economic outlook — and the pandemic — would be clear enough to craft a budget.
The possibility of that doesn't sound so good now.
What's at risk?
The state budget proposal expected to pass the Senate would allocate roughly a third of the anticipated $861 million surplus, most of which comes from better-than-expected revenues that piled up over the last two years.
It includes $12 million in aid for local governments, $50 million to bump up teachers' pay and $50 million to start making prisons safer.
The Senate plan also gives a $1,000 bonus to an estimated 20,000 state employees who had to keep working amid the shutdowns — and couldn't do so from their couch — and pays $175 extra to every person willing to work the polls this November, in hopes of attracting enough workers to prevent mass chaos.
And it sends the state's tourism agency $40 million to pay for advertising intended to bring to South Carolina however many tourists are willing to travel, as quickly as possible.
The pandemic's lingering effect on the state's all-important tourist industry is a key uncertainty for forecasters.
Teachers still wouldn't get anything close to the $3,000 pay hikes proposed before the pandemic sunk the economy.
But they would at least get their normal, annual bump for an additional year of experience in the classroom.
The state-paid step increases, suspended when the Legislature didn't pass a 2020-21 budget, generally equate to a 2 percent raise and end at 23 years of experience, meaning the state's most veteran teachers wouldn't see any of it anyway.
State Superintendent Molly Spearman says teachers deserve the boost.
"Teachers obviously aren't happy about their step increases being frozen," said her spokesman, Ryan Brown. "That's a morale issue."
What could hurt operations is if charter schools don't get the Senate plan's $34 million that covers the additional 12,200 students that flocked to the independent public schools over the summer as district officials floundered over how — and whether — to reopen classrooms.
Most of that increase, to nearly 43,000 students statewide, is due to parents newly enrolling their children in online charter schools set up for virtual-only learning. Many parents weren't happy with the remote instruction that occurred after teachers and administrators in traditional schools were forced to figure it out on the fly in March.
What will be done?
While a state budget may still be months away, one thing is certain about the upcoming special session: Legislators will allocate $668 million remaining in federal coronavirus aid, which must be spent by Dec. 31, or it reverts to federal coffers.
It's almost certain that the greatest chunk will go — again — toward replenishing the state fund that pays unemployment benefits. Leaders of both chambers, as well as McMaster, want to put at least $420 million of CARES Act aid there, three months after putting $500 million of federal aid in it.
Lawmakers say it's unfair and further damaging to replenish the account by raising taxes on businesses that were forced to lay people off and are still struggling to keep the doors open.
McMaster's list for COVID-19 reimbursements does come with a twist not part of legislators' plans.
He suggests using $50 million to reimburse public schools offering a full week of in-person classes. Just 20 percent of the state's 81 districts started the school year giving all parents that option. Fourteen districts began with online-only classes.
"Parents are not happy. I am not happy. I don’t know anyone who is happy about this," he said Thursday in announcing his recommendations for the COVID-19 aid.
In July, the Republican governor called on every district to re-open with the option of five days weekly in the classroom. He was promptly ignored.
McMaster says his office has been flooded by calls asking him to mandate it. If state law allowed him to do so, he would, he said.
"But I have no authority to require school districts to provide face-to-face education," he said.
What he can do, he said, is ask legislators to cover the additional cost, such as cleaning supplies and protective gear.
The superintendent for Greenville County, the state's largest district, said supplies don't create the space needed to keep students, teachers and employees six feet apart.
"The inability to maintain this recommended distance is the single greatest barrier to our full return of all students to school at one time," Burke Royster said.
In his district, students in the in-person option started Aug. 24 with a single day in the classroom weekly, which meant as few as four students were in class at a time. They're now in class two days a week. Thirty percent of the district's students are in its all-virtual option.
McMaster contends that if businesses can figure out how to safely reopen, schools can too.