COLUMBIA -- Debate on South Carolina's $6 billion budget plan is heading into a fifth week after senators went home Thursday and left behind dozens of amendments and sections still awaiting debate in the face of a looming deadline to adjourn.
By law, the Legislature has to adjourn by June 2. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said there's no chance now that a compromise spending plan can be worked out with the House by that deadline.
That forces final budget work to spill into a June 14 extended session that legislators have yet to approve.
The delays make uncertain the fate of two key pieces of business legislation: lawsuit award limits and changes to the state's jobless benefits system. Both could be marooned until January.
On Thursday, senators barely dented a pile of remaining amendments after daylong debate that nixed plans to cut spending on Medicaid programs for the elderly, poor and disabled; give businesses tax break on unemployment taxes; and create tax rebates with extra state cash.
Unexpected money from an improving economy and opposition to Medicaid spending is fueling the protracted debate.
In January legislators fretted about an $829 million shortfall. But that was more than erased as the economy improved and raised tax collections and freed cash from reserves. Meanwhile, the state Medicaid program found ways to cut more than $200 million from its planned spending; lawmakers tapped $157 million from a cigarette tax increase and the state Revenue Department said it would raise at least $80 million from business tax scofflaws.
The economic good news continued as the Senate slogged through four weeks of budget debate and the state's revenue forecasting board added $210 million to the cash legislators could apply to the budget.
They didn't miss a beat and made businesses and schools the budget's biggest winners.
Even before the numbers were official, the Senate agreed to put $100 million into lowering the unemployment tax rates for businesses with records of firing people. A decade of tax breaks, years of rising joblessness and the recession's firings and layoffs drained the state's unemployment trust fund and forced the state to borrow $972 million to cover jobless benefits. Businesses that fired people didn't like the higher tax bills that came with repaying the federal loans.
Medicaid spending has been a persistent target for debate and cuts. A handful of Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, argued for stripping $100 million from the program Thursday.