Budget up for debate in South Carolina Senate; plan endorsed by advocates for employees, schools

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COLUMBIA — A state budget plan that gives South Carolina’s public workers a noticeable boost in their paychecks, increases money to public schools, hires law enforcement officers and provides health insurance to more children is up for debate this week in the Senate.

The $6.6 billion spending plan for state taxes, coupled with a separate $105 million measure from this year’s rainy-day fund, has the backing of groups representing employees, schools and local governments.

The plan adds to what the House approved in March.

The Senate had more money to work with after the state Board of Economic Advisors increased revenue projections.

The proposal as adopted unanimously by a Senate panel Wednesday provides 3 percent raises to most state workers, 5 percent to all state law enforcement officers earning less than $50,000, and 2 percent to teachers.

It also covers increases in employees’ health insurance premiums.

That compares with 2 percent raises for most employees under the House plan, which passed along a portion of premium increases and excluded the State Law Enforcement Division from the 5 percent raises.

State employees have gone without a raise for three years.

“It’s a step in the right direction. It’s certainly deserving and certainly needed,” Carlton Washington, the executive director of the State Employees Association, said of the raises.

His organization asked for 4 percent, noting furloughs and layoffs over the past few years have put employees further behind inflation, and a proposal to reform the state pension plan requires employees to contribute more of their take-home pay.

Legislators provided higher increases for officers after hearing from law enforcement agencies that are losing employees to local governments that pay more, essentially making the state a costly training ground.

The budget provides for 10 hires for the State Transport Police – the division enforcing trucking laws that’s dwindled to less than two officers per county – and 20 conservation officers at the Department of Natural Resources. More than 80 new employees at SLED include 45 agents, 23 people to operate the statewide crime center and eight people in its severely backlogged DNA crime lab.

The proposal also replaces more than 100 high-mileage vehicles driven by highway troopers and SLED agents.

And it gives SLED $1 million for meth lab clean-up, to make up for the loss of federal money.

Without it, drug busts by local law enforcement would leave toxic waste in neighborhoods. Local departments lack the money and expertise to clean the sites, said Jeff Moore, the director of the state Sheriff’s Association.

Cleaning up a meth lab costs about $3,000; about $700,000 has been spent on the contract work so far this fiscal year, Moore said.

The budget provides health insurance coverage to an additional 80,000 children through Medicaid, by paying to cover children who are already eligible under state law.

The Senate plan distributes an additional $40 million to local governments, for a total of $223 million – money that’s meant to offset previous property tax relief laws and pay for state mandates. That’s still $30 million less than required by state law. The shortfall was a key source of contention on the House floor as Democrats argued local governments would be forced to slash services or increase local taxes.

But advocates for local governments won’t push for more from the Senate.

“Our folks are happy with it,” said Robert Croom of the state Association of Counties. “It’s not everything, but it’s a step toward getting back to full funding.”

The Senate plan gives $4.8 million to the state Office on Aging for services that help elderly residents stay in their homes, primarily home-delivered meals or transportation to a community center for activities and lunch – possibly their only meal of the day. The money will take about 5,000 people off waiting lists that have grown to 8,000, said agency director Tony Kester.

The inexpensive service can keep seniors out of costly Medicaid-funded nursing homes. They’re happier, and the state saves money: “It’s smart government,” Kester said.

It’s the most money from the state the agency’s ever received – a testament to the influence of Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the long-term leader of the Senate who recently stepped into the position after former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned. The House plan included only $200,000.

The Senate plan puts $77 million more toward public kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools, above the $153 million the House added to the so-called base student cost, a key funding source that primarily pays salaries.

While that key per-pupil allocation of $2,012 remains below what state formulas require, advocates for schools say they’re pleased overall.


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