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S.C. Senate Committee OKs Raises for Teachers, State Workers

South Carolina Senate Finance Committee
Jeffrey Collins/AP
/
AP
South Carolina Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, speaks during a Senate Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. The Senate Finance Committee approved its version of the state's roughly $10 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The COVID-19 economic downturn was not as bad as feared in South Carolina, so lawmakers suddenly have a lot more money to spend.

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday set aside money for a 2% raise for state employees and a $1,000 raise for all teachers as the panel approved its version of the roughly $10 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

Between one-time money from lawsuit settlements and saved from previous budgets and an extra $386 million mostly in tax revenue thanks to federal stimulus money and economic problems that did not turn out as bad as expected, South Carolina lawmakers have nearly $1.7 billion extra to spend in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

And that does not count $2.1 billion of federal stimulus money Congress approved in March that South Carolina has years to spend.

Sen. Sean Bennett said lawmakers need to ask state agencies to spend federal money before state tax dollars when they can and remember they may be back in more than one special session after the Legislature adjourns in May to figure out spending plans for all that cash.

“We should almost approach this year as an ongoing budget,” said Bennett, a Republican from Summerville.

Senators on the Finance Committee were given a 30-page spreadsheet Monday as well as a three-page typed list of more than 65 new items where the extra money could go.

The committee approved spending $48 million for a 2% raise for all state employees. They agreed to set aside $72 million for the $1,000 raise for teachers, which would be a more than 2% raise for the lowest-earning workers. Most teachers will also get their typical small, annual pay increases.

The plan includes $100 million for building and other capital improvements at disadvantaged schools with the details to be worked out later.

There are dozens of local projects in the committee's budget, from $2 million to the Mother Emanuel Foundation in Charleston to help pay for a memorial to the nine people killed in a racist massacre in 2015 at the historic African American church to $12 million to renovate Spartanburg's downtown and $3 million to repair the Hunting Island Lighthouse in the Lowcountry.

There are other projects like $5 million to improve Statehouse security, $40 million to improve rest areas on South Carolina highways and $7 million to help prosecutors and public defenders with court backlogs made worse because of COVID-19.

There is $20 million set aside for tourism advertising, $50 million to match federal money for veteran nursing homes in Sumter and Horry counties and $32 million to shore up the state's pre-paid college tuition plan for children.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman also requested an extra $2 million to hire lawyers to defend the new district maps senators will draw later this year from the 2020 U.S. Census data.

“I suspect there will be lawsuits on top of lawsuits on top of lawsuits. Maybe. Hope not, but maybe. I want to make sure the senate has enough money to bring in the right kind of attorneys," the Republican from Florence said.

Leatherman, in his 41st year in the Senate and his 20th leading the Senate's budget committee, again praised the Finance Committee staff for their hard work as the meeting wound down.

“I think they’ve sent us recommendations that I think are the best budget I've ever been associated with," Leatherman said.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.