House panel approves $24 billion budget

ashain@thestate.comFebruary 21, 2014 

Selling The Capitol

BRUCE SMITH — AP

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    Budget winner and loser

    Winner: The S.C. Department of Commerce. The state’s main jobs recruiter would get $37 million to close economic-development deals next year, an increase from this year. The agency also is slated to receive another $12.5 million for an office of innovation to work with high-tech companies, research initiatives with universities and a new program to prepare sites to attract potential industrial recruits.

    Loser: The University of South Carolina. House budget writers took a pass on USC’s request for $10 million in added state money. The money, the university said, would have allowed it to call a “timeout” on tuition increases. The state flagship school got $1 million for a “fair funding initiative,” which was not defined.

The House’s main budget panel Thursday approved a $24 billion spending plan for next year that includes a 1.5 percent pay raise for state employees, 31 new State Law Enforcement Division agents and at least $65 million for an education initiative backed by Gov. Nikki Haley.

Lawmakers also cut state money to two colleges for requiring freshmen to read gay-themed books.

The budget that heads to the House floor next week is $1.5 billion, or about 6 percent, more than a year ago. The budget includes $7 billion in state tax money, and $17 billion in federal dollars and “other funds,” including fees.

S.C. economic forecasters say state tax collections and other revenue are rising as the economy slowly exits from a lengthy downturn. They released an additional $108 million for lawmakers to spend, much of it from rising lottery ticket sales.

Lawmakers also spent $185 million in money left over from the state’s current budget, which ends June 30.

If approved by the General Assembly, state workers would receive their 15th pay raise in the past 21 years -- but just their second over a six-year period. They did not get a raise this year. The 1.5 percent salary hike would cost $23 million.

State employees would not have to pay higher premiums for their health insurance, but they would pay up to 9 percent more in medical co-pays to help offset higher health costs.

The budget bolsters public safety including:

•  Giving SLED new staff –10 workers for its forensics labs, 17 alcohol enforcement officers and four more staffers to work with child deaths at a cost of $3.7 million. That is roughly half of the agency’s requests for new agents and staff, and does not include money sought to help curb the state’s growing methamphetamine problem.

•  Allocating $2.4 million for 10 new Highway Patrol troopers and vehicles.

•  Adding $2.5 million to the state Forestry Commission for new fire equipment and firefighters.

Haley’s education reform proposal gets a boost with $29.4 million for reading coaches, $4.5 million to expand summer reading camps and $29.3 million for more technology in schools.

“With today’s news, we are one step closer to transforming our state and changing the way we fund public education,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

Other education issues in the budget include:

•  Taking away about $70,000 from the College of Charleston and USC Upstate for requiring freshmen last year to read books with gay themes. The amounts cut equal the cost of buying the books.

•  Allocating $4 million for a college efficiency review committee that will hire a consultant to find savings at public universities. The findings are due Feb. 1. Any savings found would be retained by the schools.

•  Giving $3.5 million for stipends to technical college students enrolled in science, technology engineering and manufacturing classes.

•  Money to allow college students to use lottery scholarship money for the summer semester.

•  Adding $12 million for new school buses, which must be equipped for wireless internet access.

The fallout from the massive 2012 data breach at the S.C. Department of Revenue also continues.

The budget would give $15 million to enact computer security recommendations, made by a consultant, at all state agencies and $6.5 million for another year of credit monitoring for the 6.4 million taxpayers and businesses whose tax information was stolen by hackers.

The budget approved Thursday also sets aside $2 million to maintain a Sumter County toxic-waste dump and $5 million for a planned update of voting machines.

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