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House and Senate budget dispute over 1st veterinary school in South Carolina erupts into public

South Carolina Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, speaks at a conference committee discussing the state budget on Wednesday, June 7, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, speaks at a conference committee discussing the state budget on Wednesday, June 7, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The $100 million deadlock in South Carolina's $13 billion budget erupted into public view Wednesday as the highest ranking House Democrat accused the Senate's budget leader of "putting pets over people" for insisting on money for the state's first veterinary school.

A group of three House members and three senators have been trying to work out the differences since May 16. Negotiations, when they happen, have been quiet and behind the scenes until Wednesday's conference committee meeting.

The new budget starts on July 1. The government won't shut down if the chambers can't reach a deal, but all the new spending for the 2023-24 fiscal year budget won't start, including raises for almost all state employees.

Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler set the tone for the meeting from the start, saying negotiations were at an impasse over money to open a new veterinary school at Clemson University. The Senate wants $112 million to get the school much closer to opening. The House budget has about $8 million that would only start planning.

"The sooner the Speaker of the House of Representatives realizes that he is not the Speaker of the Senate, the better," Peeler said, calling out Republican House Speaker Murrell Smith who is not on the conference committee.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, added as the House's Democratic representative to the committee after the previous Democrat had a two-week scheduled vacation with his family, sat with his head down and hand raised until Peeler called on him.

Rutherford repeated the House's position that the $100 million extra the Senate is sending to Clemson should be shared by several universities.

"How is this not at this point an impasse over a budget where we are putting pets over people? How is this not the House being concerned with higher ed and the Senate being concerned with Mister Ed?" Rutherford said.

In South Carolina, this impasse too stretches over to sports and the in-state rivalry between the Clemson Tigers and the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, which isn't getting a large outlay in this spending plan. Peeler is a vocal and proud Clemson graduate.

"The animals and the poultry you are talking about is Tigers and Gamecocks," Peeler said. "Why in the world has it morphed into that debate -- who you are pulling for on Saturdays in the fall -- it is quite frankly ridiculous."

House Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister proposed a compromise. The Republican said his committee could put all the things both chambers agreed on — 5% raise for most state employees, pay increases for most teachers and state law enforcement officers, money for school construction — into a stand alone bill and the House would pass it before the end of the month.

Peeler refused, saying that would amount to giving up what he wanted. Other senators jumped in to point out the House also cut back on the Senate's suggested funding for other universities too while adding $400 million for downtown revitalizations, festivals, park improvements and other local projects.

"$400 million for pet projects in the House. Y'all are putting pet projects over people. Did y'all get that?" Peeler said, looking at the reporters and TV cameras in the room. "That sounds like a good headline to me."

Peeler also said the House has refused to meet with senators for weeks.

The meeting ended with Bannister saying he felt like there was still room to negotiate, and Rutherford came over to the senators, smiling and laughing once the meeting ended. Less than three hours later, the conference committee announced it would meet again Thursday at 1 p.m.