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South Carolina House agrees to larger state worker raises

South Carolina Rep. Adam Morgan, R-Taylors, speaks out against individual spending in member districts on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Rep. Adam Morgan, R-Taylors, speaks out against individual spending in member districts on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

South Carolina's economy keeps doing better than predicted, leading the House to vote Tuesday to increase the raises it wants to give to nearly every state employee.

The new $13 billion budget passed 105-12 by the House matches the raises proposed last month by the Senate.

If the spending plan for fiscal year 2023-24 is approved by the governor, state workers who make less than $50,000 would get a $2,500 bump in pay, while employees would get a 5% raise if they make more than $50,000.

Tuesday's debate was bolstered by news earlier in the day that the state's economy continues to do better than predicted and the General Assembly would have an extra $800 million to spend.

The House put $200 million toward what House Ways and Means Chairman called "member requests for investments" — requests for money for local projects like fixing and expanding arts centers and museums, redeveloping downtowns, boosting local festivals and redoing road corridors to eliminate railroad crossings.

That nine-page project list, sent to members in their emails about 12 hours before the debate, was the reason for the 12 votes against the budget amendment.

Republican Rep. Adam Morgan said the system allows budget leadership, led by fellow Republicans, to curry favor with members by deciding which projects win and which projects lose.

"We need to not have any kind of system where you are able to control or even potentially buy votes from other members," Morgan said.

Morgan leads a group called the Freedom Caucus of about a dozen or so Republicans who think their fellow party members are not conservative enough. Other Republicans think the goal is to undermine the party and force it even farther to the right.

Republican Rep. Nathan Ballentine said in his 18 years in the House, the transparency for local spending has increased significantly beyond "a bunch of people smoking cigars drinking bourbon in the backroom."

He agreed with other supporters of the practice who said South Carolina limits the ways local government can raise taxes and other revenue and can use state help to improve quality of life.

"I may not agree with everything on here," Ballentine said holding up the list. "But an elected official from somewhere in the state feels its best to invest state dollars."

Just like during the regular House budget debate earlier this session, the argument between mainstream Republicans and the Freedom Caucus got heated. Republican Rep. Micah Caskey read the dictionary definition of "dishonest."

And as Rep. Josiah Magnuson read the list of projects aloud, members cheered and clapped for the ones they liked.

"I know this is cute guys. But we aren't going to clap and we aren't going to cheer," Republican House Speaker Murrell Smith said. "We have decorum."

As things got more tense, Smith told members he was dismayed at the comments about buying votes or being dishonest. He said he hopes this isn't a new normal for how House members will behave, but he also would rather have House members police themselves.

"I am the Speaker. I'm not your mother or father," Smith said.

The Senate agreed later Tuesday to insist on its minor differences in the budget, so a conference committee of three senators and three House members will work them out before the end of the month. Gov. Henry McMaster has a line item veto, but much of what he wanted is in the spending plan outside of a $2,500 retention bonus for teachers

The budge t does increase the minimum salary for teachers 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 budget includes more than $1 billion to help Volkswagen-backed Scout Motors build a plant for electric SUVs near Columbia.

About $120 million is set aside for a fund to help rural districts build schools.

The state would also cover any increases in health insurance premiums for its workers.