Politics & Government

Junk food at SC gov. mansion & ads on school buses OK’d

File: The South Carolina State House reflected in a downtown building Jan. 16, 2012.
File: The South Carolina State House reflected in a downtown building Jan. 16, 2012. gmelendez@thestate.com

Gov. Nikki Haley can serve junk food at the Governor’s Mansion, and local school districts can sell ads on their activity buses, state budget writers said Friday.

Those were just a few of the compromises made Friday, during the first meeting of a conference committee of three House lawmakers and three state senators, charged with working out a compromise between competing House and Senate versions of the state’s $22.7 billion budget that takes effect July 1.

No compromise was reached on meatier disagreements – including the Senate’s plan to spend more state money on 4-year-old kindergarten and the House’s plan to grant tax credits for private-school scholarships for poor or disabled students.

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, hinted lawmakers still were far apart on those issues. He urged House lawmakers to adopt a “continuing resolution” to keep state government operating at current spending levels if lawmakers can’t agree on a budget compromise by July 1.

“I’m always optimistic, but those issues you listed are gigantic issues,” Setzler told House budget chairman Brian White, R-Anderson. “It is going to take some real work to get through them.”

Lawmakers settled several smaller disputes, including one involving a proviso that would have banned Haley from serving junk food at the Governor’s Mansion.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, put the ban in the Senate budget proposal in response to Haley’s plan to ask the federal government for permission to prohibit low-income South Carolinians from using food stamps to buy junk food. Haley has said the ban would help address the state’s obesity problem.

But House members refused to support the ban on Governor’s Mansion junk food.

“I’m disappointed,” Jackson said. “If you want to set an example, there is no better way ... than starting with yourself.”

Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey called Jackson’s proviso “a political game by a senator who spent all session playing them.”

Lawmakers also approved a proviso to allow local school boards to sell advertisements on activity buses. State-owned school buses, which carry children to and from school, still would be off limits to advertisements. But activity buses owned by the school districts – used for field trips and to transport sports teams – could carry ads, as long as they do not promote “a political candidate, ideology, or cause, (or) a product that could be harmful to children” or relate to sex.

Money from the ads would go back to the local school districts.

A budget proviso is a temporary law, attached to the state budget. Provisos expire after a year, unless lawmakers reauthorize them.

Lawmakers briefly argued about whether the state had an extra $30 million in revenue because of a recent court settlement. South Carolina is part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies. A settlement, reached this week, ensures South Carolina will get an additional $30 million.

House lawmakers have a plan to spend the money. But senators questioned that plan, wondering if the state had the authority to spend the money, not yet in hand.

“That could be very risky,” said Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. “We need to talk to some people and get some information.”

The committee is not scheduled to meet again until next Friday. Legislators return to Columbia June 18 to finish work on the budget.