State lawmakers are back in Columbia today for what normally would be the final week of the regular legislative session.
But this year has been anything but normal.
Already, legislators know that, after a break for next week’s primaries, they will be back at the State House to finish work on the state budget and any vetoes issued by Gov. Nikki Haley.
What’s still on legislators’ plates? A look at three key issues:
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The Senate’s version of the state’s $6.7 billion general fund budget, set to take effect July 1, includes $48 million to give all teachers a 2 percent raise next year and 3 percent raises for all other state employees. State law enforcement officers would get even more – 5 percent for those making less than $50,000 a year.
The Senate budget also includes millions more to better fund the program for violent sexual predators at the state Department of Mental Health, as well as new DNA labs at public safety agencies.
The House has yet to debate the Senate’s budget proposal, which includes a last-minute $292 million influx of revenue thanks to a recovering economy.
Gov. Nikki Haley will have a lot to say about how lawmakers choose to spend the new money.
The Lexington Republican and her legislative allies are pushing to give more of it back to taxpayers. Specifically, they want a $73 million cut in state income taxes that would save most S.C. residents up to $84 a year and a $15 million tax cut for small businesses.
“The people and small businesses of the state should come first, and that’ll happen when we start sending more dollars back to the taxpayer,” said Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman.
(The Senate budget includes the small-business tax cut but not the income tax cut. The House passed both tax cuts but did not pay for them in its version of the budget.)
However, most senators say their priority is restoring the budgets of state agencies, still smarting from $1.8 billion in budget cuts from 2008 to 2010.
Department of Administration
A conference committee of state senators and representatives is meeting now, attempting to hammer out a compromise on the largest government restructuring in decades.
Their plan is to eliminate the controversial State Budget and Control Board and create a new Cabinet-level Department of Administration. The move would strengthen the executive branch, giving Haley – and future S.C. governors – direct control of the state agency that oversees a large swath of administrative functions, including the state’s vehicles, buildings, computer system and some purchasing.
The major sticking point is creating new boards to oversee various state programs, including procurement, the state retirement system and state workers’ health insurance benefits. Lawmakers disagree on which boards should oversee what and who should serve on the various boards.
“I’m hoping we can come up with a compromise before we go home this week,” said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, a member of the conference committee. “This week, we’re trying to reach consensus on the big issues.”
Fixing the state retirement system before it runs out of money also is a top remaining priority.
Both the House and the Senate have passed proposals to change the retirement system. While the original House plan would have paid state workers less once they retired, the Senate plan would require state employees to work longer before they retire.
A revised House plan, passed last week, would affect current state employees:
• Increasing the amount of each paycheck that goes into the retirement fund to 7.5 percent, up from 6.5 percent.
• Changing the rules for state workers who retire and return to work at a state job. Those workers would see their retirement checks stop once they earn $10,000 in salary. Retirement checks would start again the following year until the employee reaches the $10,000 cap. State workers who are part of the controversial TERI program would not be affected by the cap.
A committee of senators and representatives is scheduled to meet today to work on a compromise between the differing Senate and House proposals.