The S.C. Senate approved a $5 billion spending plan in the pre-dawn hours Friday 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 an 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, R-Spartanburg, referring to state troopers in the Senate gallery. "And we're not outraged? I'm outraged!
"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 hurt South Carolinians.
The debate, in some ways, is a prelude to next year, when the state faces a budget gap of more than $1 billion due to the end of federal stimulus aid and declining state revenues. A commission currently is studying the state tax code to suggest changes, and one lawmaker, Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said the state again should impose some sales taxes on groceries.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said lawmakers will need to discuss with their constituents ways to solve 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, including those offered by Bright, that would offer corporations and banks $500 million in income tax cuts by eliminating money for college scholarships, the Medical University of South Carolina, the 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, R-Cherokee, said after midnight, pleading with senators to expedite debate or withdraw amendments.
One senator, Robert Ford, D-Charleston, stormed out of the chamber after colleagues refused to allow him leave. "I'm not feeling well," said Ford, a Democratic candidate for governor. "Somebody can object until hell freezes over, I'm leaving."
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, a Republican candidate for governor, halted debate for an hour after he ruled a $6 vehicle registration fee violated Senate rules, putting the proposed 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, state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, proposed requiring illegal immigrants to pay a $50 fee to the state Department of Revenue. State Sen. Phil Leventis called the amendment laughable, adding to comply with the law required admitting breaking another law.
"They don't care how we get it done," responded state Sen. Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg. "They just want us to get rid of the illegals."
Grooms later agreed to offer the proposal as a stand-alone bill.
Lawmakers sidestepped a debate about creating a $15 million fund to offer incentives to lure low-cost airlines to the state.
Midlands lawmakers have held up the proposal thinking the money already is committed to bringing Southwest Airlines to Greenville-Spartanburg Airport and, possibly, Charleston. Midlands lawmakers worry the incentives could force other airlines to reduce flights or cut other services, including flights to Columbia.
The Senate removed the money from the budget, promising to separately debate a bill creating the fund.