COLUMBIA — South Carolina's education agency can replace hundreds of fire-prone school buses after the Senate unanimously overrode Gov. Henry McMaster's vetoes of more than $20 million in lottery profits.
The Senate's two votes of 44-0 Tuesday complete the override, a week after overwhelming votes in the House. State schools chief Molly Spearman said then her agency was ready to buy more than 200 buses with the money.
McMaster has repeatedly argued that lottery money should only fund college scholarships.
But Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, read from the 2001 state law that created the lottery, which requires, in two separate sections, that some lottery revenue go toward buses. The designated surpluses come from unclaimed prizes and lottery ticket sales above expectations, of $3 million and $17.5 million, respectively.
With buses around the state catching on fire, "this should be our top priority," Peeler said.
The money will replace rear-engine buses bought in 1995 and 1996. But even with that purchase, 350 of those buses causing the most problems — as well as an additional 790 that are even older — will still be transporting students to classes, Spearman said.
In 2007, legislators passed a law calling for the state's entire fleet of 5,600 buses to be replaced every 15 years, which would cost more than $30 million annually. But they promptly ignored that law once the Great Recession hit a year later. Currently, the budget sets aside about $5 million each year for buses.
Sen. Rex Rice, R-Pickens, asked his colleagues on the Senate's budget-writing committee to boost that reliable allocation that comes from tax collections, not the lottery, in the 2018-19 state budget.
Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, thanked senators for bipartisan votes "that could well save children's lives."
"That is a good feeling and a good day's work," he added.
The Senate's top leader also chided the Republican governor: "I am also very glad that senators could see through the false spin the governor attempted to use to justify vetoing these much needed school bus funds.”
McMaster said last week the Legislature "broke faith with the people of South Carolina."
"What we should do is follow the rules. Don’t break your word," he said.
He has insisted the lottery was sold to voters in 2000 as being for scholarships only. The constitutional change was advocated by then-Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat. Opponents, which included many Republicans in the Legislature at the time, warned voters they were going to the polls without legislation that spelled out the details. And the ballot question, approved by 54 percent of voters, promised only that profits would be used for "educational purposes." Neither the question, nor the accompanying explanation, mentioned scholarships.
While McMaster issued his budget vetoes last summer, the Legislature opted not to come back for a special session to deal with them. The money is still available to spend this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
In his budget proposal for the upcoming year, McMaster recommends doubling the recurring money for buses to $10 million. He also supports the education agency's request to use the state's more than $30 million share of a national Volkswagen settlement — for violating the Clean Air Act — on buses.
The state Insurance Department is taking applications for the settlement money. Spearman hopes to use that money to replace the 790 buses that date to between 1988 and 1995.