COLUMBIA — Senators insisted Wednesday on giving new teachers a bigger pay bump, rejecting arguments to spread the money out so that all K-12 teachers get a five percent cost-of-living increase.

Education dominated discussions during the opening day of Senate floor debate on a $9 billion spending plan for state taxes.

Other topics included offshore drilling, as the Senate voted 40-4 to insert into the budget Sen. Chip Campsen's proposal intending to at least temporarily block drilling by ensuring no prep work happens on South Carolina's coast through the next fiscal year.  

"The federal government is on the cusp of issuing permits any day now for seismic testing for offshore oil and gas reserves," said the Isle of Palms Republican. 

On teacher pay, senators voted 30-15 to maintain spending $159 million to give teachers with fewer than five years of experience up to a 10 percent salary boost, while guaranteeing a four percent cost-of-living increase to all other teachers. 

Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree argued that's not fair to veteran teachers and will lead to resentment of the new teachers who need their guidance. 

"There will be two classes of teachers in our schools. There will be teachers who got the big raise and there will be teachers disgruntled and disappointed," said the North Myrtle Beach Republican. "We'll have created a division. Those will be the conversations in teachers' lounges across the state." 

Rather than stem the growing teacher shortage crisis, the split percentages will backfire, he said. 

But Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, countered the plan intentionally invests heaviest in the young teachers most likely to bail on the profession.  

Of the 5,300 teachers who left South Carolina's public school classrooms last year, 35 percent of them had five years experience or less. When excluding retirees, that number jumps to 48 percent of departures, according to the state Center for Recruitment Retention and Advancement. 

Hembree's proposal would have required pushing the minimum salary for first-year teachers down to $33,600, instead of $35,000 as called for in the budget plan.

Leveling the percentage also means the actual dollar amount of the raise for new teachers, many of whom work two or three jobs to pay bills, would be much smaller than for veteran teachers already making tens of thousands of dollars more. It would also require local school districts to come up with more money from local property taxes to cover the flat percentage and disproportionately hurt rural districts that can least afford to give teachers more than the state-mandated minimum, Sheheen said. 

"We all know we're losing teachers in the first four years," he said. "I believe to help the system and help our kids, we need to front-end these raises." 

The $159 million plan for teachers' pay raises, as advanced by the Senate Finance Committee, mimics what the House approved last month in its budget plan. Senators postponed debate on a separate proposal from Hembree to also give teachers a one-time bonus using the state's $61 million share of last fall's Mega Millions jackpot winnings. The budget plan uses that money to send every income tax filer a $50 rebate.  

The four to 10 percent cost-of-living increase is in addition to the two percent increase most teachers will receive for another year in the classroom. In South Carolina, teachers are paid according to their years in the classroom and level of college degree. But those two percent salary bumps for experience end at 23 years.

Legislative leaders in both chambers pledge their goal is to phase in a 10 percent cost-of-living raise for all teachers over several years.

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Offshore drilling

More than 30 senators of both parties signed on to Campsen's one-year prohibition of onshore construction that would be necessary to support the controversial drilling beyond South Carolina's shores. It mimics legislation stalled in both the House and Senate that would bar state and local governments from issuing construction permits. 

Those separate bills have no chance of passing before this year's session ends May 9, though debate is expected to pick up when legislators return in January. Campsen is trying to block anything from happening before June 2020. 

"The onshore infrastructure necessary to support offshore drilling is massive," said Campsen, who displayed photos contrasting South Carolina's beaches and oceanfront wildlife refuges to the sprawling industrial complexes along the Gulf of Mexico's coastline and overviews of oil leaks into the ocean. 

The photos show why "virtually every oceanfront, beachfront community in South Carolina has adopted a resolution in opposition" to offshore drilling, he said. 

Sen. Shane Martin, R-Pauline, tried unsuccessfully to get the proposal thrown out on a technicality, arguing it was not relevant to the state budget. It passed easily after Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, overruled the objection. 

Abortion

Also Wednesday, senators voted 24-21 to reject inserting an abortion ban into the budget.

The proposal, an annual fight, would have barred state employees who are victims of rape or incest from getting an abortion paid through the state health plan. It also would have narrowed the only other exception for allowed coverage, when the mother's life is in jeopardy, to limit reimbursement to when "the termination of the pregnancy is incidental" to a doctor saving the mother's life.

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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