Legislators trying to hammer out a state budget compromise will not reach a deal by Tuesday, when lawmakers are set to return to Columbia, negotiators said Thursday.
If a compromise spending plan cannot be reached before lawmakers go home again next Thursday, then legislators will have to return to Columbia yet again to approve a budget for the state’s fiscal year that starts July 1.
A House-Senate budget conference committee has met formally for only about 30 minutes this week.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said Thursday that House and Senate budget staffers have been working behind the scenes and will work throughout the weekend on the state’s roughly $8 billion general fund budget.
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“There are a couple of issues we’ve got to work through,” said House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson.
State Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Dorchester, a Senate budget negotiator, said the impasse was a matter of getting the work done right, not quickly.
However, another Senate budget negotiator — Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington — said there are “huge policy differences” between the Senate and House budget proposals, including spending levels for S.C. colleges and the state pension system.
The House and Senate both agreed to spend taxpayer money from the general fund to pay state workers’ higher pension costs, part of deal to inject more money into the underfunded pension system.
The S.C. House also approved sending money to cover half the higher retirement costs for local government employers — cities, counties and schools — directly to the pension system. However, the Senate approved sending $30 million to the state’s local government fund, not directly to the retirement system.
Some cities, including Columbia, have said the local government fund’s distribution formula would shortchange them.
Under the House plan, Columbia would get roughly $900,000. However, under the Senate plan, Columbia would get roughly half that amount – $440,000, according to S.C. Municipal Association estimates.
Budget negotiators remain optimistic a deal will be reached before July 1.
“We’re going to get a budget,” Leatherman told The State newspaper. “Absolutely we’ll get a budget.”
White agreed. “We’re going to work as hard as we can to get something as quickly as possible.”
Pension spending is not the only issue dividing budget negotiators. Other differences include:
K-12 spending: The Senate approved an added $69 million for K-12 schools, based on their enrollment. That is about $30 million more than the House approved. The Senate’s proposal would increase state spending to $2,435 a student, roughly $500 below the level set by state law.
Higher education spending: The Senate approved $16 million in added funding for S.C. colleges, including $2.4 million for the University of South Carolina. The House did not budget any added money for colleges’ budgets.
School buses: The House approved spending an added $31 million on new school buses. The Senate approved an added $17 million.