House lawmakers sent the state budget back to the Senate on Wednesday, drawing battle lines over public vs. private education in next year’s $22.7 billion spending plan.
The House amended the budget to give tax credits to people who donate to private school scholarships. The scholarships would go to disabled students or poor students in failing schools.
State representatives limited the total private-school donations to $10 million and capped the tax credit at 60 percent of a donor’s tax liability – meaning the state potentially could lose $6 million in tax collections in next year’s budget, according to state Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville, who sponsored the amendment.
Critics say that money would be better spent on public education, which, they say, the budget underfunds by $598 million because lawmakers did not follow a 36-year-old funding formula for public education.
The tax credit would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2014. It automatically would expire in six months – as all budget provisos do – unless the General Assembly votes to reauthorize the tax break.
“You might have trouble if you are out there trying to set up a (scholarship fund) and convince people to give to you when you may not exist ... in a year,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, who opposes to the plan.
But Bedingfield said he hopes the six-month timeframe will serve as a pilot program, convincing lawmakers next year that it “was a worthwhile investment” and should become permanent law.
“Hopefully, it will give parents just another opportunity to decide if something other than the norm fits their kids,” Bedingfield said.
Senate leaders said Wednesday they oppose the House plan.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, worried that opposition would prompt a Senate filibuster. He urged lawmakers to wait until next year before deciding the tax-credit proposal. A Senate committee that Hayes leads is studying the issue.
“We are going to work on it. We’re going to have a report waiting in January. There will be an opportunity to deal with this issue,” Hayes said. “So, I hope we don’t do it in the budget.”
Hayes and Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, also expressed concern the House did not pass a bill to keep state government operating past June 30 if budget negotiations bog down.
“If they want to shut down state government, then they can shut down state government,” Hayes said.
House leaders dismissed that possibility, saying the House could pass a resolution to keep state government operating when lawmakers return to Columbia later this month for a special session.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.