Politics & Government

SC House overrides Gov. McMaster, moves to replace fire-prone school buses

The state of South Carolina soon may be able to replace some of its oldest and most fire-prone school buses.

But don’t expect your child to be on a new school bus until next fall.

The S.C. House voted 107-8 Tuesday to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of $17.5 million to buy new school buses. Legislators also voted 112-1 to override another McMaster veto of an additional $3 million for buses.

The $20.5 million that House members voted to restore to the state budget would pay for about 250 new school buses.

Those new buses will cut the number of fire-prone 1995 and 1996 buses in service. Statewide, 350,000 students take the bus to school every day.

Meanwhile, House members refused to override McMaster’s veto of birth-control coverage for children of state employees who are members of the state’s health insurance plan.

The Senate adjourned Tuesday before senators could take up the governor’s vetoes. They are expected to take up the bus vetoes Wednesday.

‘Who are we as a state?’

As some of the state’s oldest buses continue to overheat and catch fire, state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, R-Saluda, pushed lawmakers to override the school bus vetoes by McMaster, R-Richland.

Last week, the engine of a 23-year-old bus caught fire in Anderson County. That bus was one of more than a dozen that have caught fire or dangerously overheated since 2015.

“If we can’t put the safety of our children riding to school as a top priority then who are we as a state?” Spearman asked, adding she was thrilled with the House vote. “I would have been devastated had this not happened.”

The effort to override the governor’s veto briefly was threatened as some House Democrats tried to muster votes necessary to sustain it.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, voted to sustain McMaster’s bus veto after House members failed to override another veto by the governor — of a $4.9 million proposal that included about $1 million for an HIV/AIDS prevention program.

“It is an exciting day when we can make sure that our children are taken care of and our school buses, hopefully, one day get to a point where they don’t catch on fire with children on them,” Rutherford said. “But it’s a sad day because we voted to not fund the HIV/AIDS program that has been running in South Carolina for decades.”

Last June, McMaster vetoed $20.5 million from the S.C. lottery and its pool of unclaimed prize money to replace buses.

“The legislation passed to allow the lottery (was) for one thing – and one thing only – and that is (college) scholarships,” the Richland Republican said last week.

However, the 2001 lottery law approved using some lottery profits to buy new school buses.

McMaster has included some money for new school buses in his 2018-’19 executive budget proposal. He proposes doubling — to $10 million — the amount the Education Department gets each year for buses.

The state also is waiting on its share – $34 million – of a nearly $3 billion nationwide settlement with German automaker Volkswagen that could be used to cover the cost of replacing older buses.

If the Senate also overrides the vetoes Wednesday, the Education Department can order new buses later in the day, said spokesman Ryan Brown. But it can take up to six months for buses to be delivered, he added.

House sustains birth-control veto

Despite the efforts of several women representatives, the overwhelmingly male-majority House sustained McMaster’s veto of money that would have covered the cost of contraceptives for the children of state workers in the state’s health insurance plan.

McMaster described the proposal as an $8 million-a-year unfunded mandate for the state health plan in his veto message to lawmakers.

The state health plan now covers free prescription birth control – except for emergency contraceptives – for state employees, retirees and their spouses. But for employees’ dependents, the plan covers only birth control needed for medical reasons – not to prevent pregnancy — and requires a copay of from $9 to $63.

The House voted to sustain McMaster’s veto, falling well short of the two-thirds majority need to override.

Avery G. Wilks contributed to this story. Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter