COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Senate ended this year’s legislative session Thursday by overriding 46 of Gov. Nikki Haley’s 81 budget vetoes, restoring money to a Union County library, a Barnwell County courthouse and other local projects.
Many of the votes were close. Seven times senators sustained a veto, then came back and voted to override it. The $100,000 to repair the courthouse in Barnwell County died twice before senators finally mustered enough votes to override the veto.
The most conservative members of the Senate bristled as several votes to get rid of local projects just barely made it over the two-thirds vote threshold needed to keep them in the state’s $6.7 billion spending plan.
“There has been a lot of vote-swapping going on today,” said Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Travelers Rest.
The General Assembly now goes home until January.
The Senate sustained eight of the governor’s vetoes Thursday. Last year, Haley also issued 81 vetoes and had 48 overturned.
The Senate agreed with the governor on removing a $1 million item for a visitor’s center in Orangeburg and $453,000 for lights near a tennis center on Daniel Island.
The governor’s biggest win during the veto session came Wednesday, when the House agreed with her move to take out $1.7 million for a Department of Health and Environmental Control program that decided whether new nursing homes can open, hospitals can expand or build medical buildings, and doctors can buy equipment worth more than $600,000.
Supporters of the Certificate of Need program said the governor’s move will create chaos because the law is still there, even if it isn’t paid for.
One moment of suspense came Thursday as senators voted on the governor’s decision to veto a provision that added nearly $51 million to the budget.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said that if the veto was sustained, he would demand that the House and Senate come back and write a new budget instead of letting across-the-board spending cuts go into effect.
In the end, he asked to switch his yes vote to a no because he thought the measure was going to fail and wanted the chance to bring it back up again. The Florence Republican quickly realized his vote would actually sustain the veto and switched back to yes.
For most of Thursday, senators squared off over spending in rural areas. They spent nearly an hour debating $100,000 for the Barnwell County courthouse.
“If we can help a municipality or county, we need to do that,” said Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Winnsboro.
Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, pointed out that Charleston County had to spend $6 million to renovate and repair its courthouse without state help.
Other senators said lawmakers were trying to go back a couple of generations, when the Legislature held great sway over county governance.
“This harkens back to those days when we wrote the county budget,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms.
In the end, the fight was mostly won by rural senators. Lawmakers agreed to return more than $1 million to the Union County library for renovations, $150,000 for a boat ramp to serve isolated Sandy Island in Georgetown County and $200,000 for the Benjamin Mays historical site that honors the civil rights leader in Greenwood County.
Senators also saved a couple of annual veto targets from the governor, restoring money taken from the South Carolina Arts Commission and the Sea Grant Consortium. Both agencies said they couldn’t function if the vetoes stood.
“A state without the arts is like a football team without a band,” said Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.
The Senate restored about $2 million to help people suffering from disorders ranging from HIV to hemophilia to colon cancer. In the governor’s veto message, she said choosing charities should be a personal decision, not the government’s decision.
Senators restored $5 million for nursing homes and $3 million requested by Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who also runs the state’s Office on Aging. The money would pay for vouchers so caregivers can hire someone to stay with elderly relatives for a day in case of family emergencies or other conflicts.
Haley said this year’s budget has no recurring money for Medicaid, so the program might not be funded next year.
McConnell said before the Senate went into session that was not true and he didn’t like the governor mischaracterizing what his request would do. He said the program was important and would save money by giving caretakers a break.
“If we don’t cover that, these people will start degenerating and end up in Medicaid beds, increasing costs to taxpayers over 10 times,” McConnell said.
Thirty-nine of the 44 senators present Thursday voted to return the money to the budget. Only an item concerning The Citadel got more support.
The total proposed budget for 2013-14 is $22.8 billion, when adding in $7.6 billion in federal money and $8.4 billion in “other funds,” which includes agency fees, fines and grants. The fiscal year starts July 1.