STATE BUDGET: The Senate Finance Committee wrapped up work Thursday on a $5.8 billion spending plan that includes more than $509 million in cash mostly from unneeded reserves, growing state surpluses, a crackdown on tax scofflaws and the state's increased cigarette tax. The tax crackdown would give the state Department of Revenue $4 million to track down companies and individuals outside the state. The agency has promised the campaign would collect $80 million in unpaid tax revenue. The spending plan's extra cash is spread throughout state agencies and helps bolster state programs that, among other things, cover cancer screenings, the state's disabled and drugs for AIDS patients. The largest chunk goes to state Medicaid programs, which pick up $214 million. Another large piece goes into public education programs. They pick up $128 million, with $97 million used to increase per student spending.
AMAZON-SALES TAX: The sales tax collection exemption that's been at the heart of a dispute with online retailer Amazon.com was introduced Wednesday in the South Carolina Legislature. The legislation says Amazon won't have to collect retail sales taxes on goods handled at the distribution facility being built in Lexington County. The sales tax break was on the books but about to expire when Amazon negotiated with the state to build a $100 million distribution facility that would create 1,249 permanent jobs. Economic development leaders agreed to revive the sales tax exemption. Legislators and Gov. Nikki Haley balked at those plans when Amazon's competing retailers complained. Amazon says it will back out of building the facility without the break.
SCHOOL CHOICE: Legislation that helps parents send their children to private school has advanced in the South Carolina House. A House panel voted 3-0 Wednesday to advance the proposal to the full Ways and Means Committee. The idea of using tax credits to help parents foot the bill for private tuition has died repeatedly in the Legislature. State economic advisers estimate the latest proposal would cost the state $133 million when fully implemented in 13 years. The cumulative loss of revenue to the state because of tax credits to parents, as well as people and companies that donate money for scholarships, would be more than $800 million by 2023-24. Supporters discount the state's report as inaccurate. Identical legislation advanced last week to the Senate Education Committee.
DRY HOLIDAYS: South Carolina liquor stores wouldn't be open on Christmas and Thanksgiving under legislation advancing in the House. A House Judiciary subcommittee on Thursday approved a measure banning sales on those two holidays. The bill does end a decades-long prohibition on liquor sales on Election Day. The 2-1 vote sends the bill to the full Judiciary Committee for debate. It won't affect sales of liquor, beer or wine at restaurants and bars. Republican Rep. Dennis Moss of Gaffney says his bill can be seen as a public safety measure. The retired Highway Patrol officer said the holiday bans could cut down on binge drinking that leads to domestic violence.
VOTER ID: South Carolina senators sent a bill requiring photo identification for voters to a conference committee. House leaders had stripped the bill of provisions for early voting that Senate Democrats insisted the measure contain as a compromise to require picture IDs. Democrats worry the legislation will suppress voter turnout; Republicans say it's a safeguard against fraud. The 28-15 vote Wednesday came after hours of debate with Democrats saying they'd been promised the Senate would defend an early voting requirement that had been added to the bill to gain their support. Similar legislation died last year in a conference committee when deals couldn't be worked out before the session ended.
TEACHING CONTRACTS: South Carolina's school districts would be able to try out new teachers longer and those teachers would have less job security under legislation a House committee approved Tuesday. New teachers now have a one-year induction contract that requires them to show they meet state standards. They're paired with a mentor during that year. The legislation sent to the House for debate lengthens the trial period to three years. The bill leaves it up to school districts to decide how they will help teachers meet evaluation standards over that three-year period. Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said the proposal means less job security for new teachers. The induction contracts offer the least protection of the three types of employment deals teachers can have with school districts.
DROPOUTS-DRIVING PRIVILEGES: South Carolina teens under 18 would lose driving privileges if they drop out of school or accumulate more than seven unexcused absences under a bill heading to the House floor for debate. The House Education and Public Works Committee unanimously approved on Tuesday a measure that would suspend licenses until the student reaches 18. Driving privileges would be restored if the student returns to school or enters a GED program. Members of the committee said the legislation will encourage students to think seriously about the consequences they'll face if they don't stay in school.
RECORDED VOTING: Hundreds of tea party activists and campaign supporters crowded into the Statehouse lobby Tuesday to see Gov. Nikki Haley sign a bill requiring roll call votes in South Carolina's House and Senate -- requirements they already abide by. Cheers greeted Haley and legislation that was a rallying point for her come-from-behind gubernatorial campaign. The bill requires roll call votes on every bill on second reading, each section of the state budget, as well as when the House and Senate approve compromise versions of legislation. The House and Senate separately changed their chamber rules to do so in 2009. But Haley argued on the campaign trail it needed to be in state law. Her signature marked the end of a three-year fight she picked with the Legislature's leaders as a House member from Lexington.
LAWSUIT LIMITS: South Carolina lawmakers are using language by a conservative, business-funded special interest group as a model for legislation aimed at limiting lawsuits. The legislation was initially modeled after one by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Legislators in Tennessee, North Carolina and Wisconsin are all pushing variations of what the ALEC label as reforms. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed that state's overhaul into law last week. The South Carolina House version of the bill says juries can award no more than three times the actual damages caused by a defendant or no more than $350,000, whichever is greater. But the Senate Judiciary Committee added exceptions and allows juries to know whether people injured in wrecks wore seat belts. Now the big fight in the Senate turns to moving the bill back toward the model ALEC created.
TEACHING SCHOLARSHIPS: Teacher advocates said Thursday a scholarship program designed to draw South Carolina's top students into public school classrooms is a good deal for the state. Teachers-in-training at participating colleges came to the Statehouse to advocate the program's continued importance. The Legislature launched the rigorous Teaching Fellows Program in 1999. It calls for up to 175 students to be chosen annually for scholarships of up to $6,000 a year for four years. Fellows must teach in a public school for at least as many years as they received the scholarship, or pay back the money. But the recession has led to smaller scholarship amounts for fewer students. Advocates feared a continued reduction. But so far, legislators' spending plan for 2011-12 keeps funding at $3.1 million.