Budget committee votes to end South Carolina teacher bonus program

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COLUMBIA — The House budget-writing committee on Tuesday approved closing a teacher bonus program to new entries, creating a fund to pay for deepening the Charleston harbor, and renewing a tax-free weekend for gun buyers.

Those are among the actions taken on the opening day of debate by the full Ways and Means Committee. Members hope to wrap up debate this week on the state’s spending plan for 2012-13. Floor debate is set to start in mid-March.

The committee voted to suspend the incentive program for teachers who earn a national certification, which provides an annual bonus of either $5,000 or $7,500 for the 10-year life of the certificate. There would be no bonus for those who apply after June 30. Nothing would change for teachers already receiving the money or going through the process.

After more than a decade, the bonuses have not led to discernible increases in student performance, House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham said.

While the budget clause would suspend the program for a year, the push is to end it, while developing a pay-for-performance system. Legislators of both parties agree that’s a good idea. Previous attempts to scrap the National Board stipends have died. But the idea stands a good chance this year, with the support of Superintendent Mick Zais, Gov. Nikki Haley and members of both parties.

The committee also voted to create a reserve fund for harbor deepening. South Carolina is in a race to deepen the Charleston harbor to accommodate mega-size ships after the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014.

The approved clause included no money. Discussion on an amount is expected today.

Haley’s budget proposal would set aside $25 million for the ports.

South Carolina will need to pick up 60 percent of the $300 million expected price tag.

Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Mount Pleasant, said he hopes legislators will put in the full $180 million state match, calling the federal government’s projected 2024 completion date absurd. The state economy depends on that project being fast-tracked, he said.

Also Tuesday, the committee voted 21-2 to insert into the state budget a sales-tax-free weekend for gun purchases on some of the busiest shopping days of the year. The “Second Amendment Weekend” would be the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Legislators approved the sales tax holiday for three consecutive years but removed it from the current budget.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said it would be more fiscally responsible to leave the tax break out as legislators consider tax reform. Republicans say they will introduce a measure this session that eliminates many sales tax breaks and lowers the overall rate.

The sponsor of the tax-free weekend, Republican Rep. Mike Pitts, said he believes residual sales of ammunition and gun accessories over the weekend, which remain taxed during the break, make up for any lost state revenue.

Legislators also made it known that local governments will again receive less money from the state than law requires.

The committee voted 15-7 to advance a bill allowing legislators to ignore a law mandating that cities and counties receive 4.5 percent of the previous year’s general revenue. Complying would cost roughly $80 million more.

The “local government fund” has been cut from $280 million in 2008 to $183 million in the current budget, as legislators repeatedly passed measures giving them flexibility as revenue plummeted during the Great Recession. The money is distributed based on population, with 83 percent going to counties.

An approved addition to the budget would allow local governments to offset the loss with a corresponding cut for state-mandated programs – which range from animal shelters to building code enforcement to office space for state agencies. Legislators agreed they shouldn’t pass along unfunded mandates. They initially refused to put the flexibility in the stand-alone bill, but later amended the budget to specify that courts and solicitors are exempt from the reductions.

OTHER LEGISLATION

• The House Judiciary Committee approved a measure Tuesday that could reduce costs for South Carolina residents seeking documents under open records laws. The bill bars public agencies from charging more than fair market rates for copies and would keep agencies from charging more than the cost of searching for a record.

• A Democrat wants voters to decide whether legislators should be limited to 16 years in their chamber. Rep. Bakari Sellers introduced a measure Tuesday that would limit the number of times House and Senate members could be re-elected, starting in 2014. The idea would require amending the state constitution.

– Associated Press


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