COLUMBIA — A committee of South Carolina lawmakers dealt with trees, junk food and answering machines Friday as it began the job of ironing out differences between the House and Senate versions of the state’s $6.3 billion budget.
The conference committee of three House members and three senators deferred decisions, however, on most of the big-money issues, including for 4-year-old kindergarten, school buses, infrastructure and state employee pay raises.
They did agree Friday that the state Transportation Department should get local approval before cutting down trees along miles of Interstate 26 in the Lowcountry. The conference report they will send to lawmakers includes a proviso that the department get permission from the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Council of Governments before the trees are removed.
The department wants to remove the trees along 30 miles of the median of the highway to improve safety.
The conference panel also agreed school activity buses could have advertisements but killed a budget proviso to keep junk food out of the Governor’s Mansion. The latter proposal would have barred the governor’s office and mansion from buying junk food with public money, whether for family dining, employee treats or entertaining.
The committee also approved a provision prohibiting any state agency for spending money on a telephone answering system that does not have the capability to connect callers to a live operator during regular business hours.
The committee meets again next Friday. At that time they are expected to get information on when an additional $30 million from a court settlement from a class action lawsuit against tobacco companies may flow into state coffers.
Lawmakers return to Columbia on June 18 to consider the revised budget.
The conference committee still must resolve the major differences between the two budgets.
“As far as I’m concerned, we have some major issues,” Senate Minority Leader Nikki Seltzer, D-West Columbia, told the conference committee at the start of the session.
“We do have some major issues,” agreed Republican state Rep. Brian White of Anderson, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Infrastructure and roads, the education section with school choice and 4K are going to be the biggest issues.”
The panel also includes Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney; Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill; and Rep. Mike Anthony, D-Union.