Politics & Government

Gov. Henry McMaster backs 5% teacher pay raise, rebating $200 million to SC taxpayers

A 5 percent pay hike for South Carolina’s nearly 53,000 public school teachers. A $200 million refund to S.C. taxpayers. More investment in the state’s rural communities. And freezing rising college and university tuition costs.

Plus, millions for pay raises and bonuses for law enforcement, corrections, probation officers and firefighters — but not an across-the-board pay raise for all state workers.

Those are among the highlights of Gov. Henry McMaster’s 2019-20 executive budget proposal, unveiled Tuesday. It is the Columbia Republican’s first proposed spending plan since being sworn in last week for his first, four-year term.

Historically, a governor’s budget proposals have not carried much weight with the Legislature, which writes the state’s spending plan. However, McMaster’s budget blueprint focuses on K-12 education, a sign the Republican governor is aligning his priorities with the GOP-controlled Legislature, which wants to reform the state’s schools.

“I intend to work vigorously with the leadership of the General Assembly,” McMaster said Tuesday. “We’re going to fix education in South Carolina.”

McMaster and his staff have been in close communication with S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. Later this month, the powerful House speaker is expected to release his proposals to change education funding and policy.

As in his inaugural speech, McMaster again asks the Legislature to hold off on spending all of the $1 billion in new money in the state’s coffers. Instead, McMaster said, $200 million should be rebated to S.C. taxpayers.

State taxpayers who file a 2018 individual income tax return would receive a rebate, under McMaster’s proposal. The amount would depend on the number of tax returns filed and would be proportional to the amount of taxes paid. Rebates would be issued by the state Revenue Department no later than Dec. 15, the Governor’s Office said.

“We keep telling the taxpayers that our jobs in state government is to find ways to save money, to spend money wisely and, whenever we can, return their tax money,” McMaster said. “This is the right year to make good on that promise and return that money to the citizens.”

‘We’re going to fix education’

The state has an alarming shortage of teachers, McMaster acknowledged Tuesday.

More than 5,300 teachers quit their jobs last school year, forcing school districts to rely on substitute and international teachers, according to a new statewide study.

That is why, McMaster said Tuesday, he is asking lawmakers to spend nearly $155 million to give teachers a 5-percent pay raise. That would increase the average S.C. teacher’s salary to $53,185, above the 2020 projected Southeastern average salary of $52,830.

“We must have and must be known as having the very finest teachers and educators in the United States,” McMaster said Tuesday, standing beside Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, R-Travelers Rest, who will travel the state pushing the governor’s budget priorities. “We are not there yet. We do have some of the finest. But we need to be known as having the finest.”

In his proposed budget, McMaster also asks for:

An added $31.8 million to increase the amount the state pays school districts by $10 a student. Those payments remain well below the levels — about $600 a student — called for in state law.

An added $46 million to cover the cost of hiring 758 resource officers for schools unable to afford that cost.

An added $2.2 million a year for the S.C. Department of Mental Health to hire 88 additional counselors, bringing services to schools.

Since the shooting deaths of 17 students and faculty at a Florida high school last February, McMaster has called on lawmakers to spend more money to protect the state’s roughly 730,000 K-12 students. Last year, lawmakers added $2 million to the state budget to help hire resource officers for 38 poor S.C. schools.

McMaster also wants the Legislature to spend $100 million to allow the S.C. Department of Commerce to focus on bringing new jobs and investment to 28 of the state’s poorest school districts — for example, fixing school buildings, or strengthening a district’s water and sewer system. The Governor’s Office credited the idea to state Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, who brought the proposal to McMaster a year ago.

“Poverty is the enemy of education,” McMaster said. “A weak (school) system in one part of our state affects the whole state. So we must be hitting on all cylinders.”

S.C. Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, praised the governor’s budget for focusing on education, adding he supports McMaster’s tuition freeze proposal and economic development fund for rural school districts.

“It’s unique,” he said. “It’s thinking outside of the box, and that’s what we’re going to need to be successful.”

Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said he finds it “refreshing how earnestly (McMaster) takes his role in promoting public policy as part of the budgeting process.”

“In meetings I’ve been in with he and the (House) speaker, it is clear we are willing to work together to move South Carolina forward.”

House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said Tuesday he also backs investing more in poor school districts. “The way to improve education, to improve the tax base, to improve the workforce is by economic development and bringing jobs in.”

Tax reform efforts

McMaster is not giving up on his campaign promise to push for across-the-board state income tax cuts.

But, the Governor’s Office said Tuesday, that conversation needs to be part of a broader discussion with the House and Senate, where committees have been studying tax reform.

McMaster made a tax-cut proposal last year, but legislators ignored it. This year, the General Assembly hopes to pass a tax reform measure. The governor said he hopes that plan will be presented later this year.

McMaster’s predecessor, former Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, proposed income tax cuts, too. But those cuts were never approved by lawmakers, with some arguing they would force cuts in already underfunded state programs, including schools and colleges.

The governor’s budget proposal also renews a call to exempt retirement income for the state’s 38,196 retired military veterans and 21,090 first responders from the state’s income tax, saving those retirees almost $21 million a year.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, applauded the governor for including a teacher pay raise and college tuition freeze in his budget proposal.

“This is the first time in 15 years, probably, I’ve seen a governor take the lead on funding higher education and controlling tuition growth,” said Sheheen, who has been pushing a similar proposal in the state Senate to increase state funding of colleges in return for a promise not to increase tuition for in-state students.

Sheheen said he was encouraged by McMaster’s teacher pay proposal but called it “a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to retain teachers, shrink class sizes and fix crumbling buildings” after more than a decade of neglect.

The Democrat was less sold on tax rebates, saying legislators must first give state workers a pay raise, and fix state buildings and infrastructure before issuing rebates.

McMaster’s 2019-’20 budget proposal

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster unveiled his proposed 2019-’20 spending plan Tuesday. It includes:

$63 million to enhance workforce partnerships, grants, training and scholarships for prospective technical college students

$40 million for the S.C. Department of Corrections to fix infrastructure, including prison doors and door locks

$33.6 million to cover pay raises and bonuses at criminal justice agencies, and to hire new first responders, probation and corrections officers, and firefighters

$5 million for new voting machines

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.