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Done in a day: SC House sprints through $14 billion budget

File photo of the S.C. House chamber
Russ McKinney/SC Public Radio
File photo of the S.C. House chamber

The South Carolina House approved the state's $14 billion budget in one day with little debate over big ticket items and knocking aside smaller changes like stricter abortion rules or worries about whether a state health card could be used as a COVID-19 vaccine passport.

The House voted 108-7 late Monday to give the budget key approval. They plan to return to the chamber Tuesday morning for a routine final approval, sending it on to the Senate.

Traditionally, House budget debates have gone on for days. But they have shrunk in time since House Speaker Jay Lucas took over in late 2014. Lucas warned last week, as Speakers traditionally do, that the debate could stretch into the weekend. The extend hotels stays won't be required.

Part of the good feelings might come with having so much money to spend. A combination of a booming population growth and the economy, federal stimulus money and savings in case the COVID-19 economic downturn was catastrophic gave lawmakers an extra $4.5 billion. About $3 billion is in one-time money, while the rest is in taxes and fees the state can expect to collect each year.

The budget was almost unchanged from what passed the House Ways and Means Committee. There is about $1 billion set aside to repave roads, improve safety and expand interstates — like jump-starting the expansion to three lanes for all of Interstate 26 from Columbia to Charleston.

The House's spending plan that would start in July includes raises for all state employees and most teachers and state law enforcement officers. There are new schools, a new state health lab and money to improve election security.

There was about three hours of debate Monday evening on smaller changes.

There were the annual amendments about abortion in the budget that weren't approved. This year included a provision pulled down by its sponsor to take money to advertise COVID-19 vaccine and safety and instead advertise "abortion takes a human life," Rep. Josiah Magnuson said.

The Republican from Campobello also sponsored annual amendments to take away state money for Planned Parenthood, which opponents said would do more harm to family planning and care for pregnant women and remove an item in the state's health insurance plan that allows it to pay for abortions in cases of rape and incest.

House Majority Leader Gary Simrill said while he does not like abortions, doing either of those steps would be more harm than good, inviting costly lawsuits or hurting people who need help.

"Our job relies on us to be policymakers and not politicians — to make sure we are studying not what's happening now, but what the consequence is beyond now. What does it mean in the courts?" said Simrill, a Republican from Rock Hill.

Other changes either voted down or pulled down by their sponsors included banning state money being spent on smart health cards that could record whether someone was vaccinated for COVID-19 and giving a $20,000 raise to any House members whose other yearly income is less than $30,000. House members currently make just over $10,000 a year plus expenses.

"This isn't a part time job. We might be here three days a week. But damnit, when you call us we come," said Rep Krystle Matthews, A Democrat from Ladson.

Her amendment was voted down 58-40.

Once again, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter tried to get a little more money for state employees. She suggested a $3,500 bonus for the roughly 75% of state employees who make less than $50,000 a year. It would cost about $60 million and be paid for out of the more than $760 million in federal COVID-19 relief South Carolina has not spent.

"We're in the land of milk and honey right now," the Orangeburg Democrat said of all the extra money the state has to spend "so how about letting the little people drink and little milk and eat a little honey?"

Republicans shut the door on the idea now, but said Cobb-Hunter is welcome to bring it up again when they debate how to spend the rest of the COVID-19 money.

The budget does offer all state employees a 3% raise and a $1,500 bonus.

It also gives $230 million to boost the minimum pay for teachers regardless of experience by $4,000, assuring that starting teachers in every district would be paid at least $40,000.

The spending plan now goes to the Senate, which will work on its own version over the next month. One big difference has not been resolved — state income tax cuts and rebates.

The House sets aside $600 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year to immediately cut the top state income tax bracket from 7% to 6.5% and collapse all other brackets to 3%. Eventually, the House would cut the top rate to 6% as long as there is economic growth costing about $1 billion.

The South Carolina Senate last week approved its own $2 billion package. The 44% of tax filers who pay no state income tax would get a $100 rebate. Remaining taxpayers would get back what they paid in state income taxes up to $700.

The differences between the two tax plans will likely be settled in May by a small group of House members and senators.