The South Carolina Senate approved a $5 billion spending plan early Friday morning that imposes fees to pay for law enforcement and delays decisions on how to deal with a billion-dollar budget hole until next year.
Like the House earlier this year, lawmakers worked through the night during often contentious 17-hour debate. A handful of Senators, led by Sens. Lee Bright and Shane Massey, argued the state should focus on higher-priority functions, such as law enforcement, and should scrap $45 million in hikes to court, vehicle registration and hunting and fishing license fees.
“A core service of government has to come and ask to be funded,” bellowed Bright, a Spartanburg Republican referring to state troopers in the Senate gallery.
“And we’re not outraged? I’m outraged!
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“Our job is not to come in here and get our fair share. That is not our job…I’m here to stand in the gap.”
Massey, R-Aiken, pushed for an alternative to charging $50 to file a court deposition, saying the fee was “another way to screw South Carolinians.”
The debate, in some ways, will be a prelude to next year when the state faces a budget gap of more than $1 billion due to federal stimulus aid ending and declining state revenues. A commission is currently studying state tax code to suggest changes, and one lawmaker, Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said the state should again impose some taxes on groceries.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said lawmakers will need to discuss with constituents about solving the budget deficit through greater government cuts, more fees, higher taxes or a combination of all.
“I think the people out there are beginning to realize the amount of revenue we have in the state is not going to provide services the way we have in the past,” Leatherman said.
As the night wore on lawmakers bristled at a stack of amendments, such as those offered by Bright, which would offer corporations and banks $500 million in income tax cuts by eliminating funding for college scholarships, the Medical University of South Carolina, University of South Carolina system and other agencies.
“We’ve had enough ‘gotcha!’ votes and ‘walk the plank’ votes on both sides,” Majority Leader Harvey Peeler said after midnight, pleading with Senators to expedite debate or withdraw amendments. One senator, Robert Ford, stormed out of the chamber after colleagues refused to allow him leave.
“I’m not feeling well,” Ford, D-Charleston, said. “Somebody can object until hell freezes over, I’m leaving.”
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer sidetracked the debate for an hour after he ruled the $6 vehicle registration fee violated Senate rules, putting the budget $22.7 million out of balance. But lawmakers took the rare step of voting to override Bauer 28-14, leaving the fee in place.
At another point, Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, proposed requiring illegal immigrants pay a $50 fee to the Department of Revenue. Sen. Phil Leventis called the amendment “absurd” and “laughable” noting that to comply with the law one admits they are breaking the law.
“They don’t care how we get it done they just want us to get rid of the illegals,” said Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg. Grooms later agreed to offer the proposal as a stand alone bill.
Lawmakers similarly defused a debate about creating a $15 million fund to offer incentives to lure low-cost airlines. Midlands lawmakers have held up the proposal believing the money is already committed to bringing Southwest Airlines to Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. Those lawmakers worry the incentives could force other airlines to reduce flights or cut other services.
The Senate removed the issue from the budget and will separately debate a bill creating the fund.