COLUMBIA – The S.C. Senate gave key approval Wednesday to its $6.6 billion spending plan for state taxes.
The Senate voted 27-12 on second reading, though plenty of debate remains. Senators took the vote before adjourning Wednesday evening after carrying over all proposed changes to the third reading, which returns the amended bill to the House.
Amendments defeated so far include attempts to remove money for additional judges and block implementation of nationwide education standards for math and reading.
The budget adds three circuit court judges and six family court judges, along with their court reporters, assistants, and – in circuit court – law clerks, for a total of 30 positions.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal has for years asked legislators to pay for more judges, saying in her 2008 State of the Judiciary speech that South Carolina’s trial judges are the most overloaded in the country. In 2010, she just asked legislators to quit cutting, telling them there could be a major breakdown in the state’s judicial system if the courts lose more money.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler argued Wednesday the state doesn’t need more judges, and he proposed shifting that $3 million in the budget toward keeping down business taxes through unemployment insurance. Of all the constituent requests he hears, adding judges isn’t one of them, said Peeler, a dairy farmer.
But legislators who are attorneys argued the judicial backlog is delaying routine hearings for months and the resolution of cases for years, whether for criminal prosecution or family adoptions.
The judicial system is a core function of government that should be properly funded, said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville.
South Carolina’s general court judges have the highest caseload nationwide, at more than 5,000, according to an analysis of 2009 caseloads. South Carolina’s family court judges disposed of nearly 75,000 cases in 2010-11, and had nearly 39,000 pending when the fiscal year ended.
“When the chief justice says we need more judges to make this system work, we should give her deference,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms.
Senators also retained the ability of victims of rape and incest to get an abortion through the state health plan. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, fought unsuccessfully to provide coverage only when the mother’s life is in jeopardy.
There have been no insurance-covered abortions for rape or incest for at least six years, while there have been six to save the mother’s life, according to data from the state Budget and Control Board.
The three current exceptions for covered abortions are allowed only for a female employee or spouse on the health plan and do not extend to their children, no matter what their age or circumstance, according to the agency.
Bright threatened to hold up the budget “if we’re going to kill babies,” saying the child shouldn’t suffer for the biological father’s sins.
“I’m for capital punishment for rape. That’s equal to murder because you’ve destroyed that woman’s life – destroyed her dignity – but you can’t convince me by killing that child you’ve made her whole,” he said.