$13B budget quickly OK'd in harmonious South Carolina Senate
The South Carolina Senate unanimously approved its version of the state's $13 billion spending plan in an unusually short debate lacking the typical back-and-forth the upper chamber usually has over the budget.
The plan raises the salary of nearly every state employee and will build South Carolina's first veterinary school at Clemson University. It will build a state juvenile jail, freeze in-state tuition at colleges and universities and help rural districts build schools.
There are differences with the House's budget plan that will need to be worked out by a small group of senators and representatives before the budget goes to the governor's desk.
Chief among them is how big a raise to give state employees.
The Senate plan spends $166 million to give state workers a $2,500 bump in their base pay if they make less than $50,000 and a 5% raise if they make more than $50,000. The House's budget for fiscal year 2023-24 spends $42 million less. Workers making less than $83,000 would get a $2,500 raise and those making more would get a 3% pay bump.
The House budget had $200 million for bridge repair that did not make it into the Senate plan.
But overall, the two chambers agreed on many items.
Both plans agree that some law enforcement positions — like state troopers, state agents, and officers and nurses in prisons — could be in line for even bigger pay raises.
Many teachers, whose salaries are outside the regular state employee system, would also get a raise. The plan would increase the minimum salary at every position and experience level by $2,500. The spending proposal additionally would send $261 million more in classroom aid to local school districts, which could use that money to give raises if they are already above the minimums set by the state.
The state would also cover any increases in health insurance premiums for its workers.
Both chambers rejected a request by Gov. Henry McMaster and South Carolina Superintendent Ellen Weaver to give all teachers who stay for a full year a $2,500 retention bonus.
The budget includes more than $1 billion to help Volkswagen-backed Scout Motors build a plant for electric SUVs near Columbia.
It also spends $540 million in unspent funds from previous budgets and other one-time sources for higher education projects, like $75 million to start the first veterinary medicine school in South Carolina at Clemson University and $54 million to replace the nearly century-old Turner Hall at South Carolina State University.
There is $71 million to help the Department of Juvenile Justice build a prison for juveniles, repair or replace other old buildings, improve security and hire more workers.
About $120 million is set aside for a fund to help rural districts build schools.
Unlike this year's House's budget debate, the discussion in the Senate lacked long, drawn-out arguments over social issues like abortion or whether colleges and universities should spend money on diversity programs.
Amendments were passed, but the changes were mostly minor, like requiring school districts to continue to take cash to pay fees or assuring the State Law Enforcement Division it can take grant money outside of state government to hire agents to fight human trafficking.
In all, the Senate spend only about seven hours debating the budget, a point of pride for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler. It was the Republican's second budget after 42 years in the body.
And Peeler knows the dangers of long debates well into the night and the week. In 2000, the final all-night arguments on the budget finally ended at 6:30 a.m. on a Friday. Peeler tried to drive straight home to Gaffney, dozing off behind the wheel and crashing his car into a fire hydrant.
He thanked other senators and the staff for working so hard in subcommittee and committee to get an easy-to-debate budget on the floor, but joked he expects better in 2024.
""It took us two solid days to pass this budget," Peeler said. "We've got to do better next year."