COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina House budget writers want to send raises to teachers, state employees and law enforcement, build new schools and a state health lab and buy more body cameras and bulletproof vests for police officers.
The House Ways and Means Committee approved the state’s $14 billion spending plan Thursday, sending the plan to the House floor where it will be debated in mid-March.
There is an unprecedented amount of money for the General Assembly to spend in the fiscal year starting July 1 between the booming economy boosted by federal stimulus money and cash lawmakers saved over the past few years in case the COVID-19 pandemic crashed revenues. More than $3 billion is one-time money the state does not expect to have to spend again.
The centerpiece of the House’s budget — a $600 million income tax cut — was passed Wednesday and included in the budget. It cuts the state’s top tax bracket where nearly half the taxpayers file from 7% to 6.5% next year, eventually trimming the rate to 6% as long as the economy continues to grow. All other tax brackets would be collapsed to the lowest 3%.
“Budgets are about the future. They are about taking care of our citizens right now but also preparing for the future of the state,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Murrell Smith said.
In education, the House budget sets aside $230 million to boost the minimum pay for teachers regardless of experience by $4,000. Starting teachers in every district would be paid at least $40,000 under the plan.
Some wealthier school districts would need local leaders to put up their own money to get those raises for teachers as the House budget adopted Gov. Henry McMaster’s proposal to change how the sate pays its share for public schools on student-teacher ratio and minimum teacher salaries instead of the confusing arrays of formulas currently used.
Rep. Bill Whitmire, who was in charge of K-12 spending, said the state must take action to keep teachers and combat thousands of open positions. “Hopefully we can stem that tide that’s leaving,” the Republican from Walhalla said.
It isn’t all raises for teachers. The House budget includes $150 million to help rural, poorer districts build new schools and $100 million to replace old textbooks and classroom materials. There is $2.6 million in the plan to increase the checks given for teachers to buy supplies from $275 to $300.
The House budget also includes a 3% raise for all state employees and a $1,500 bonus, with Republican Rep. Bruce Bannister of Greenville saying they earned the extra money by being “workhorses” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter who makes it one of her goals to get better pay for state employees told Bannister his subcommittee “did good. But you can do better.”
The Orangeburg Democrat said she would like to see bigger bonuses for the 75% of state workers who make less than $50,000 a year.
“They were considered essential workers. Now in the minds of some they’re back to being low-skilled workers,” Cobb-Hunter said.
Millions are also being set aside for law enforcement raises, although the details were not clear.
The House budget sets aside $20 million to buy more body cameras for police officer and set up a grant program for smaller police agencies to get bulletproof vests.
“Everyone will have body armor this year,” said Rep. Phillip Lowe, a Republican from Florence who handled law enforcement and criminal justice.
The House plan spends about $1 billion on roads from accelerating the widening of clogged interstates including Interstate 26 between Columbia and Charleston, fixing or rebuilding old bridges and repaving and improving safety on rural roads — projects delayed before the state increased the gas tax increase starting in 2017.
“Our roads tell the story,” said Rep. Shannon Erickson, a Republican from Beaufort in charge of transportation.
Other items in the House budget include:
— $87.5 million to create a bank account for the Office of Resilience to pay for help after flooding and other natural disasters.
— $68 million for the Department of Natural Resources to buy land to conserve and provide outdoor recreation.
— $19 million to promote tourism, with at least $4 million going toward areas that are not typically considered tourist destinations.
— $65 million for the Department of Mental Health to improve in-patient and outpatient care and provide more mental health services in schools.
— Nearly $5 million to promote South Carolina’s plans to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Revolutionary War.
— $4 million to the State Election Commission to pay for additional election audits and improve security.