COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The first public meeting in 18 days of a conference committee trying to work out a budget deal between the South Carolina House and Senate showed no sign of getting closer to a deal on the state’s $13 billion spending plan set to start July 1.
The two main budget lawmakers in each chamber insisted they weren’t at an impasse at Monday’s meeting that lasted less than three minutes.
It was yet another sign something is gumming up the works as the clock keeps ticking to the end of the month. If the budget isn’t passed before then, things like raises for state employees — which lawmakers have already agreed to spend with an extra $1 billion — can’t start.
Both the House and Senate did give themselves some cushion in their game of chicken, agreeing last month to a resolution allowing the government to keep spending money at current levels if a budget isn’t finalized before the fiscal year ends.
It appears neither side thought it might take this long. The House had to replace its Democratic negotiator because he is now on a planned two-week vacation.
“So far, we’re making progress, not as fast as I’d like to see,” Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler said Monday.
Republican House Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister was even cagier about any progress.
“We have a lot of things we have to clear up,” Bannister said. “But we appreciate y’all. I think everybody is negotiating in good faith.”
If the two sides can’t reach an agreement before the end of the month, the more than $1 billion in extra tax revenue the state collected this budget year couldn’t be spent. The revenue is currently set aside for things like raises, building rural schools and hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects like downtown revitalizations, festivals and park improvements.
Neither chamber has specified what they can’t agree on, but earlier conference committee meetings offered hints. As they went through dozens of items determining if they would agree to the House or Senate version of the budget, they skipped over some spending for the state’s major universities.
Clemson University wants $87.5 million to build the first veterinary school in the state. Peeler, a vocal and proud Clemson graduate, persuaded the Senate to agree to the full amount. The House plan only offered $7.5 million.
Money for the University of South Carolina, Clemson’s in-state rival in football and many other things, was another sticking point. The House plan gave the school $20 million yearly for science and math programs and an extra $5 million for its medical school. The Senate is only offering $10 million for this year.
House Speaker Murrell Smith has his members returning for a session Wednesday, although the reason isn’t known. Both the House and Senate will need to approve the budget, which will be sent to Gov. Henry McMaster, who will have a chance to veto any spending item he wishes. Then the General Assembly can try to override any of those vetoes with a two-thirds vote.
Two weeks ago, Smith presided over an empty House chamber after what was expected to be a quick negotiation on a deal suddenly dragged. It was a parliamentary necessity so Smith could call them back whenever he likes.
Three other members of the 124-member House masked their voting button as present as Smith adjourned the session in less than three minutes.