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SC lawmakers meet briefly on $13B budget but reach no deal

South Carolina Budget
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Senate Finance Chairman Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, left, and Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, right, talk before a meeting of a conference committee on the state budget on Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Several powerful House and Senate lawmakers met Tuesday for about 10 minutes to talk about South Carolina's budget without reaching an agreement on the main sticking points.

Each side praised the other. Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler said his House counterpart Gary Simrill could "sell a used car to Elon Musk."

Simrill, the Republican House Ways and Means Committee chairman, told the rest of the six-member conference committee "we have made a lot of progress."

Then staff members read off a list of dozens of smaller issues by their code numbers in the budget where both sides agree and the committee of four Republicans and two Democrats adjourned to meet at some undetermined time.

Not on that list were a lot of things. The House and Senate are about $1.3 billion apart with the biggest difference a $1 billion rebate senators want to send back to taxpayers.

The clock is ticking. Both chambers are set to come back June 15 for a special session to vote on the budget compromise. The spending plan being debated is supposed to be in place by the time the fiscal year starts July 1.

"This is obviously a big budget year — a lot of issues out and an economy that's uncertain. But I'm certain with the people here that we are going to get this resolved and we're going to have a budget that we are all going to be proud of," Republican House Speaker Murrell Smith said.

There is nearly $13 billion to spend, save or return to taxpayers in the 2022-23 budget as state revenues in areas like sales tax continue to grow by double digits as the economy booms after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. The state budget was about $6 billion a decade ago.

Both chambers have about $1 billion of cuts in income taxes in their spending plans, but the House phases it in over five years with $600 million of the cuts happening next budget year and with triggers to stop if economic growth slows. The Senate's full tax cut is immediate.

Other differences include the House proposing to raise the minimum a first-year teacher is paid from $36,000 to $40,000, while the Senate increases starting pay to $38,000.

To pay for the $1 billion rebate, the Senate cut some items in the House's budget, including money for roads and a $1,500 bonus for all state employees.

The House spending plan for the 2022-23 fiscal year also includes $236 million more in projects requested by individual lawmakers, like projects for the arts or downtown revitalization.