Politics & Government

Gov. McMaster vetoes $20.5 million to replace aging SC school buses

More than a third of the $56.4 million in state spending that S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has vetoed was slated to replace aging, fire-prone S.C. school buses.

In budget vetoes announced Monday, McMaster cut $20.5 million for new school buses, saying that money might not come through because it depends on the S.C. lottery raising more than projected.

Lottery money, though often spent on other education expenses, should be spent solely on the scholarships the lottery was created to fund, the Governor’s Office added.

McMaster’s veto slashed two-thirds of the $28.9 million S.C. lawmakers approved last week to buy or lease new school buses.

McMaster wrote in his veto message that spending money before it is available “is not a responsible budgeting practice. If additional lottery proceeds become available in the next year, they should be carried forward for use as scholarships for South Carolinians.”

McMaster also released a video veto message on social media. “The lottery money should be used only for scholarships for our young people, because that’s what voters were promised 17 years ago,” McMaster said in the video.

South Carolina’s aging buses are proving to be a fire hazard for S.C. students, the state Department of Education says. Seventeen buses have caught fire or dangerously overheated since August 2015. In some cases, children were on board.

The $28.9 million – if all of the money comes in – would allow the Education Department to buy 298 buses and lease another 116 new buses, according to the agency. Buying a school bus costs about $80,000.

The added money for buses would leave almost 1,000 school buses more than 20 years old still operating.

“By vetoing funding for the purchase of new school buses, the governor is putting the safety of our students at risk,” S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said in a statement. She added: “not only are these old buses twice as expensive to operate and maintain, but they are also experiencing structural and mechanical issues.”

Spearman said she plans to work with the General Assembly to override the veto “and ensure South Carolina’s students have a safe means of transportation to and from school.”

Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said he will push for the General Assembly to override McMaster’s veto.

“We need those school buses,” Scott said.

The state budget will take effect on July 1.

It is unclear whether S.C. lawmakers will return this summer to take up McMaster’s budget vetoes. Legislative leaders had said they would wait until January to take them up if McMaster’s vetoes were not substantial, but had not announced a decision on Monday.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

SC budget vetoes

Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed $56.4 million – or less than 1 percent – of South Carolina’s roughly $8 billion state general fund budget. It will take a two-thirds vote in both the S.C. House and Senate to override his vetoes. Here’s a look at what he cut:

▪  Mandatory contraceptive coverage for dependents of members of the state health plan. The proposed change would cost the state $8 million, the Governor’s Office said.

▪  Allowing counties to spend up to 20 percent of the gas-tax money they receive from the state for roads to be spend on non-pavement projects, including drainage improvements, signage, lighting and sidewalks. McMaster said he opposed diverting the money away from paving and maintenance, when lawmakers already OK’d “the largest tax increase in state history” when they raised the gas tax last month over his veto.

▪  Pork projects, according to McMaster. They include $6.2 million for Parks Recreation and Tourism revitalization, $3.3 million for sports marketing grants, and $4.9 million for medical contracts.

▪  Cuts to the S.C. Conservation Bank. McMaster’s veto restored funding to the environmental conservation agency to roughly its current levels. Lawmakers had proposed spending one-time money on the bank, which is set to disband next year. “While I agree with many of the criticisms regarding the Conservation Bank, I believe it is a useful tool for protecting our environment and maintaining our competitiveness,” McMaster wrote. “South Carolina deserves a reasoned debate about the Bank’s future and mission through normal legislative processes- not the budget.”