COLUMBIA — The Senate on Tuesday approved a $6 billion spending plan that locks in spending reductions for Medicaid and welfare programs while adding money to public schools and a break for businesses on their unemployment taxes.
The 23-16 vote approving the spending plan came as senators agreed to cut off debate as discussions entered a fifth week. The bill now heads to the House and could be in a conference committee where lawmakers will work out differences in days.
It’s unclear if legislators will send the spending bill to the governor before adjournment on June 2. Legislators plan to return on June 14 for a wrap up session and to draw election district lines.
Moves to speed up the budget came as Republicans worried that legislation they wanted to pass would be marooned for the year. They were particularly worried about bills that limit lawsuit awards, change the state’s unemployment insurance laws and offer a sales tax collection break to online retailer Amazon.com.
Budget writers started their work in January facing an $829 million shortfall. But they patched that with cash from a growing economy that improved state tax collections and freed cash reserves for spending. A cigarette tax approved last year generated $157 million and the state Revenue Department said it could raise $80 million by cracking down on out-of-state business tax scofflaws.
In the midst of debating the budget, the state’s financial forecasting board added $210 million to revenue projections. Senators quickly spent that, with $100 million used to lower taxes for businesses’ unemployment taxes.
They also put $105 million for public schools in a move that teachers and school boards said would head off furloughs and job cuts.
The money would raise per-student spending to $1,959 from the current $1,617. It’s still well short of the $2,720 a state school funding formula says is required, but educators say it shows state public school spending is heading in the right direction.
But the budget is balanced with cuts, too. The state Medicaid program found ways to cut more than $200 million from its planned spending.
That includes cutting $125 million from reimbursements to doctors and hospitals.
But the proposed budget also locks in Medicaid program cuts at the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency earlier this year eliminated or reduced a variety of Medicaid services, including adult dental and vision services, the number of shoes diabetics can receive and home health care visits. The Senate agreed to require Medicaid patients to use generic drugs if they are available and don’t cause bad reactions.
The spending plan also locks in cuts earlier this year implemented at the Department of Social Services.
In February the state Department of Social Services cut welfare-to-work payments for an average mother of two from $270 monthly to $216. People getting the checks must work at least part time or be in a training program to qualify for payments that already were among the nation’s lowest.
And there are reductions in education spending.
For instance, budget writers cut nearly $4 million from physical education programs.
Most South Carolina public colleges stand to lose 6 percent of their general taxpayer budget. That includes more than $6 million at the University of South Carolina and nearly $4 million at Clemson University. The reductions were softened to a degree with reserve account money paying for maintenance projects. For instance, USC picked up $9 million and Clemson gained $6 million.
During Tuesday’s debate, senators agreed to put $1 million into cleaning up methamphetamine labs after the federal government stopped paying states for the work.
The labs create toxic waste that can’t easily be disposed of. Each site can cost up to $3,500. The Drug Enforcement Administration last year gave the state about $727,000 for cleanup work, but those funds expired and sheriffs have been using contingency funds and forfeited drug money for cleanups since February.
State Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, said without the state cash, local law enforcement agencies would be responsible for covering the costs.
The Senate also reversed itself and agreed to continue to put money into the Prosecution Coordination Commission.
That move came with a 34-6 vote and no debate. Last week, senators voted 22-21 to refuse spending nearly $8.9 million on the commission after Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, said at the time the commission had a lot of problems. He wanted pay prosecutors directly and scrap the commission.