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Teachers, state workers will get pay boost if economy doesn't free-fall, House leader says

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Forrester and Tallon

State Reps. Mike Forrester and Eddie Tallon, both Spartanburg Republicans, talk on the S.C. House floor Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, during a special legislative session. Seanna Adcox/Staff  

COLUMBIA — The House's chief budget writer said Wednesday he wants to give teachers and state employees a pay boost now — as senators proposed — but doesn't want to risk having to lay them off later.  

"Let’s be careful and make sure we don’t make rash decisions that we regret later," said House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter.

If the economy hasn't fallen farther off a cliff by the time legislators return in January, House leaders are committed to passing a budget bill that closely mimics what the Senate approved Tuesday. And teachers' raises could be retroactive, he said.

He fears the more than $550 million that the Senate set aside in case of an emergency might not be enough if revenues keep falling. Smith wants to hold off on spending any of the entire projected $861 million surplus. 

His comments solidified that the House will not take up the Senate's plan for the fiscal year that started 2½ months ago. That means the special session will end next week with state government still running at last year's spending levels. 

"A lot of these things are very worthwhile considerations. The only disagreement we have is they’re rushing head-in to a storm, and they don’t know whether the storm’s going to last for a month or years, and I think that is not wise," Smith said, noting he wants to prevent a repeat of the deep cuts to agencies in the fallout of the Great Recession. 

"I think it’s very important for us to ensure that we are not subjecting teachers, employees and state agencies to budget cuts before we start spending new money," he said.

Spending left on the table until at least January includes $50 million to bump up teacher salaries, $50 million for safety upgrades at state prisons, and $20 million to provide $1,000 bonuses to state employees who kept working during the shutdowns and couldn't do so from home.  

The House did approve a bill allocating $748 million in federal COVID-19 aid, which includes redirecting $80 million unspent from a pandemic-relief bill passed earlier this year. 

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to use $10 million to cover an additional 10 days of paid leave for state employees who must quarantine because they're diagnosed with or are exposed to the virus. Proponents said it could especially help teachers, who may have to quarantine repeatedly this school year. 

Federal law already requires public employers to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for workers quarantined by COVID-19. 

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Teachers "may be OK for the first 10 days, but if it happens again, they may be out of luck," said Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Hopkins. 

The proposal was defeated, Smith said, because "nobody could tell us whether the $10 million would cover that or not." Plus, the way it was worded didn't actually cover teachers, he said. 

Another defeated proposal would have provided those $1,000 bonuses to state employees, as the Senate did in its separate budget plan.

"We call state employees essential, but we’re not willing to put our money where our mouth is," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who's long fought for raising state employees' pay. 

"State employees are crying out for help," continued the Orangeburg Democrat. "They have been crying out for help for years now. Their cries have fallen on deaf ears."

But Smith explained those bonuses likely can't be paid with the federal aid that comes with strict rules on eligible reimbursements for COVID-19 expenses. 

House and Senate leaders will still have to negotiate on funding before wrapping up the special session. 

The Senate passed its own coronavirus-funding bill Tuesday, which spent the $668 million that wasn't already allocated from the entire $1.9 billion chunk the state received earlier this year under the federal CARES Act. Under congressional rules, that money must be spent by Dec. 31, or it reverts to federal coffers.

Both chambers' plans put the bulk of the money into replenishing the state fund that pays unemployment benefits, though the House put in $30 million more, for $450 million.

The House also put more money toward grants for nonprofits and small businesses, but capped them at $25,000 — half of the Senate version's maximum — and broadens who qualifies.   

Neither chamber's plan includes Gov. Henry McMaster's recommendation to use $50 million to reimburse school districts that offer parents a full week of face-to-face instruction. Last week, the Republican governor said he had no authority to mandate the option, so he was doing the only thing he could — ask the Legislature to incentivize it by covering costs such as cleaning supplies and protective gear. 

Smith said the House will separately take up a resolution next week that would give state officials the authority to require five days in the classroom.    

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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