COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House refused efforts to lower school class sizes or hike proposed boosts in state employees' pay in its $9 billion spending plan but approved a provision intended to encourage retirees to return to public jobs.
The House voted 112-2 about 1 a.m. Wednesday to advance its proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1, following roughly 13 hours of floor debate that resulted in few changes. Another routine vote of 100-2 later Wednesday officially sent the package over to the Senate.
Legislators rejected efforts to further bump up employees' pay.
The 2 percent pay bump in the budget would mark state employees' first across-the-board raise since 2016.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, proposed boosting pay even more, to 4 percent, for employees making less than $50,000. That would cost an additional $23.2 million.
About 75 percent of state government's 60,000 workers earn less than $41,000 annually.
"I don’t know about y'all, but I don’t think that’s acceptable," Cobb-Hunter said in her annual endeavor to get employees more pay. "My heart and my passion are for the little guy and girl who make up three-fourths of our workforce."
The budget provides $159 million to cover at least a 4 percent pay increase for K-12 teachers.
Teachers in the classroom fewer than five years would see up to a 10 percent hike. The plan ensures first-year teachers make no less than $35,000, up from this year's minimum of $32,000.
Rep. J.A. Moore, D-North Charleston, tried to redirect $96 million slated for providing every tax filer a $50 rebate toward teacher bonuses.
The budget combines $35 million in tax collections with the state's $61 million share of the $1.5 billion winning Mega Millions jackpot, claimed earlier this month from a South Carolinian who wants to stay anonymous, to send taxpayers a rebate. The House voted 74-39 to reject Moore's proposal to instead give each teacher up to a $1,600, one-time bonus.
Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Hopkins, attempted unsuccessfully to cap class sizes at 15 students in kindergarten through third-grade classes in low-performing schools.
It was similar to proposals defeated last week as the chamber advanced House Speaker Jay Lucas' massive proposal aimed at overhauling K-12 public schools. She called that bill, sent to the Senate for debate, "extremely punitive."
Provisions in the bill expand the state's ability to take over long-failing schools and require districts that don't improve after several consecutive years of state intervention to dissolve.
"How are we really willing to help?" she asked. "We can say we cannot afford this, but we can’t afford not to do this."
State regulations dating to 1976 set caps at 30-to-1 for kindergarten through third grade and as high as 35-to-1 in middle school.
But even those high caps aren’t followed.
Legislators have suspended them through the budget every year since the Great Recession.
The teachers' advocacy group SC for Ed has sought student-to-teacher ratios of no more than 18-to-1 for kindergarten through second grade; 20-to-1 for third- through eighth-grades and 24-to-1 in high school.
Teachers contend class sizes are growing amid the state's shortage crisis.
But the House's GOP majority insisted Tuesday on having no caps at all, rejecting Rep. Russell Ott's attempt to reinstate class-size caps.
"We're quite frankly putting too much on them," Ott, D-St. Matthews, said of teachers. "I believe this would be a small step in the right direction in acknowledging our teachers are important to us."
Opponents of caps argued class sizes remain low when looking at statewide averages, and those are local decisions.
There are more than 50,000 teachers statewide for more than 750,000 students. Ott and Brawley said averages don't paint a true picture of what's happening in individual classrooms.
An approved amendment would allow state retirees to come back to work and continue drawing two checks.
Any former teacher, officer or other public employee could get a new job in state or local government and continue collecting pension benefits along with their paychecks — as long as they wait 12 months between retiring and the new job.
Currently, pension payments for rehired retirees stop for the year as soon as their salaries reach $10,000. Few have chosen to come back under that arrangement.
The cap is an intended deterrent.
It was reinstated under a 2012 pension reform law to stop workers from taking advantage of the system. But employee advocates argue that contributed to shortages.
Senators have blocked previous efforts to lift the cap, fearing it would put the state's pension system deeper into debt.
House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R-York, insisted the one-year wait means it won't.
The state's pension agency confirmed Tuesday the proposal would have no impact as long as the 12-month requirement is strictly enforced.
What costs the system money is when people are incentivized to retire before they otherwise would, but "if someone is already retired, this doesn't change their behavior," said Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg.
While there are shortages across state government, "this will really help schools and law enforcement tremendously," he said.