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Budget proposal includes flood relief for farmers, tax cuts

By: The Associated Press//February 26, 2016

Budget proposal includes flood relief for farmers, tax cuts

By: The Associated Press//February 26, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A $7.5 billion budget proposal sent Thursday to the House floor provides $40 million to flood-devastated farmers, cuts income taxes by $130 million and designates $250 million for road projects.

The Ways and Means Committee’s spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 incorporates more than $1 billion in additional revenue.

Legislators have said fixing South Carolina’s crumbling roads is a top priority. The proposal to be debated on the House floor next month would distribute $185 million among 46 counties — for local authorities to pick which roads to pave — and send $66 million to the state Department of Transportation.

A separate bill that would raise an additional $800 million annually for roadwork remains blocked on the Senate floor by opponents of increasing the gas tax.



The committee’s plan provides $72 million to cover the state’s share for federal assistance amid last October’s catastrophic flooding. It also reimburses the DOT for $37 million worth of repairs ineligible for federal help.

It sends $40 million toward replenishing sand along South Carolina’s entire coast. And it spends $660,000 on additional dam inspectors, since the rupture of dozens of earthen dams contributed to the flooding.

The proposal sets aside $40 million to help farmers survive direct crop losses estimated at $376 million.

Also Thursday, the full House voted 95-6 on legislation setting up how that money would be doled out.

Farmers in disaster-declared counties could apply for grants of up to $100,000 each, covering no more than 20 percent of their total loss. The grants are meant to provide a revenue bridge so farmers can plant for next season and aren’t forced to literally sell the farm.

“They’re on their last leg. They’re selling their tractors just to make payments, just to feed their families,” said Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.



The committee’s proposal puts an additional $375 million in K-12 education.

Legislators have until session’s end to answer the state Supreme Court’s fall 2014 ruling that the state fails to provide opportunities for students in poor, rural districts. No specific line in the budget refers to the case.

But members of the committee’s K-12 panel said the budget collectively addresses the order.

“This is going to be a process that will take time,” said Rep. Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon. “One of my main concerns was what will we do right now to help those districts retain teachers.”

All teachers would see a 2 percent cost-of-living raise in addition to their step increase for experience, through 23 years in the classroom. Currently, 20 percent of teachers statewide get no credit for experience beyond 22 years — many of them in poor districts that can’t afford to pay more.

The budget provides $8 million for incentives to attract teachers to rural districts with the highest turnover.

It also designates $19 million for bus drivers’ salaries, so the state covers a $7.50-an-hour wage for all districts.

Superintendent Molly Spearman has said covering at least the minimum wage would particularly help the plaintiff districts.

Initiatives include $29 million for the third in a three-year technology commitment and $1 million to expand the state’s online program — giving students access to courses not otherwise offered in their school.

The budget funds a statewide review of school buildings — a precursor to borrowing up to $200 million annually for K-12 construction. Gov. Nikki Haley advocated that idea last month, saying she can no longer ignore the moldy walls and other unsafe conditions in schools she visits.

The borrowing would start next year.



The spending plan forgives $12 million in loans to South Carolina State University over several years, on the condition it hires a new president by Dec. 31, posts yearly enrollment increases, and balances its budget.

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said that will help SC State keep its accreditation and stay open.

The state’s only public historically black university will learn this summer whether its accreditation will be restored from probationary status or yanked altogether.

“If SC State doesn’t make it, the state’s still liable for that debt,” said Merrill, chairman of the committee’s higher education panel. “It’s better to invest and give them the opportunity to succeed.”

The budget also provides SC State $5 million to repair a dilapidated dorm.

Lawmakers replaced the college’s entire governing board last year. The school has until 2020 to pay back a separate, $6 million state loan.

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