Senators reach compromise, approve state budget

After four days of debate, the Senate gave final approval to the state’s $7 billion budget on Thursday.

After hours of on-the-floor negotiations, the Senate approved on Thursday the state’s $7 billion general fund budget.

It took two days for senators to reach a compromise on amendments proposed by Sens. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, and Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, that had stalled passing of the budget for days.

Senators made minor changes to Sheheen’s proposal, which will use the state’s extra cash in the budget that it collected this year above its expenses and allocate it toward a one-time $800 bonus for state employees, totaling $23.5 million. Another $4.1 million has been slotted to help cover the expenses of counties hit the hardest by the 2014 ice storms.

Sheheen said he would have preferred state employees receive more money, but was happy with the compromise. The money will likely hit employees’ pockets around Christmas time, he said.

“Morale is really bad with state employees right now,” said Sheheen, adding that it’s been years since employees have received any type of bonus.

The rest of the cash that’s left over will be sent to the counties to use for the resurfacing and rehabilitation of local and state roads, satisfying the request Bright had been making for days.

“I think the senate worked well together,” said Bright, adding that he felt more money could’ve been allocated toward roads. “You can’t always get everything. I’m hoping the governor will use her veto pen; maybe get more money to fund roads.”

It’s unclear how much cash will be left over, however. Estimates by senators range from $25 to $200 million. The final sum won’t be clear until the end of the fiscal year in June.

Other notable items in the budget include $2.4 million for officer body cameras, an action directly related to the Walter Scott shooting by a North Charleston Police Officer, said Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said the money for cameras is a start. He added it will be ideally used as matching funds for federal grants.

The budget also increases base student cost by $100 to $2,220. It also allocates $5 million to help build Charleston’s proposed International African American Museum.

An additional $100,000 will be going toward a new recidivism program in North Charleston called the Turning Leaf Project, and another $100,000 is going toward the Real Men Against Domestic Violence program .

House members will get a chance to vote on the changes the Senate made to the budget, before it goes back to the Senate for final approval and ultimately Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk.

In the meantime, attention in the Senate will shift toward procedural votes on Tuesday that if approved will place in cue for debate a capital reserve bill — which has a $236 million borrowing plan attached to it — and a newly proposed roads funding plan.

Yet, the borrowing plan attached to the capital reserve bill is facing an uncertain future, after an amendment by Majority Leader Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, was approved on Tuesday calling for the creation of a committee to study the state’s capital needs.

It’s expected to provide lawmakers with a clear picture of immediate and long-term higher education needs, including the technical college system, and the state’s bond capacity and debt service. But some senators worry the move will give lawmakers an excuse not to take any action to address capital needs this session.

Money destined for projects at the Medical University of South Carolina and Trident Technical College, among others, is sitting in the borrowing plan, however. And that’s concerning to Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston.

“I don’t think the bond (proposal) will be successful,” Grooms said. “That means we have to shift the money over to the capital reserve bill.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.