The S.C. House’s chief budget writer wants to use part of the state’s recently announced $177 million budget surplus to build three new nursing homes for veterans and replace 13,000 voting machines.
Those “big-ticket items” — costing about $87 million — make up half of state Rep. Brian White’s four-point spending plan for the one-time surplus, outlined to The State.
White’s proposal does not include any money to give raises to state workers, who, advocates argue, are woefully underpaid compared to state workers in other Southeastern states.
But the Anderson Republican’s plan does include spending more in some of the state’s high poverty, rural communities that struggle to raise enough money to build new schools or remodel existing school buildings. It also would help outfit volunteer-run fire departments, he said.
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Last week, S.C Comptroller Richard Eckstrom, the state’s accounting watchdog, closed the books on the state’s $8.1 billion general fund for 2018, reporting a one-time $177 million surplus for the fiscal year that ended July 30.
State lawmakers return to Columbia in January, when, White anticipates, they will decide how to spend the surplus, adding he is floating his ideas to get a conversation started.
“It’s time to go ahead and engage (lawmakers),” he said. “These are things I know we can go ahead and take care of.”
Asked on Wednesday what Republican Gov. Henry McMaster wants done with the surplus, spokesman Brian Symmes said the Columbia Republican plans to push for state income tax cuts, including ending the tax for military retirees and first responders.
Meanwhile, state Rep. James Smith, the Democratic nominee for governor, said on Wednesday that any one-time money should take care of one-time needs.
“There’s certainly plenty of those,” he said. “You want to be most impactful with that money and use it on those projects that either can be completed (with the money) or that can make a difference.”
‘That’s a lot of hot dogs, fish plates and hash’
Not so fast, warned Comptroller Eckstrom in a statement.
“The General Assembly would be wise to resist any ‘spending spree’ temptation, considering instead using some or all of the surplus revenue to shore up the state’s all-important rainy-day balances,” Eckstrom said in a statement last week.
However, the longest-serving Democrat on the House’s budget-writing committee says the “bulk” of the surplus should go for pay raises for state workers.
“We’ve always made the excuse that we didn’t have the money,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, adding White’s proposals have merit but should be covered in the state budget, not through the surplus. “Pay raises ought to be priority for any surplus we have.”
However, White said his proposal would cover some immediate and necessary expenses that could pose serious problems for South Carolinians.
For example, White wants to use about $37 million of the $177 million surplus to cover the state’s matching share for a federal grant for three new nursing homes for veterans, requested by the S.C. Department of Mental Health. That agency already has set aside more than $40 million toward the cost of the nursing homes.
The state operates nursing homes in Columbia, Walterboro and Anderson. But a growing waiting list to get into those homes and the state’s growing senior population mean three new nursing homes are needed in Florence and Cherokee counties, and northeast Columbia, lawmakers say.
“While the true cost won’t be known until the projects are put out for bid, it is prudent to identify a source of funds now in the event they will be needed to proceed with construction,” Mental Health spokesman Mark Binkley said in a statement.
White also wants to use the surplus to:
▪ Replace the state’s 13,000 aging voting machines, bought in 2004, at a cost of $50 million. South Carolina has $15 million set aside to replace those outdated machines, which do not produce a paper trail, making it possible to audit vote tallies.
▪ Help build or renovate aging school buildings in some of the state’s poorest school districts, which do not have a large enough local property tax base to raise money for school buildings or technology inside.
▪ Start a state matching-grant program for volunteer-run fire departments that struggle to find enough money to replace aging trucks, equipment and buildings.
“If a poor ... little volunteer fire department has to buy a pumper truck, you’re talking about somewhere between $500,000 to $750,000,” White said. “That’s a lot of hot dogs, fish plates and hash that they have to sell to do (cover) it.”