Politics & Government

Pay raises, tuition freeze and a refund? A look at the first draft of SC’s next budget

South Carolina has an extra billion dollars. Here is how Governor McMaster wants to spend it.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced his proposed budget. It focuses heavily on funding education and public safety.
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South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced his proposed budget. It focuses heavily on funding education and public safety.

South Carolina could spend nearly $160 million this year to raise teacher pay by at least 4 percent, part of an effort to increase their salaries to the national average — about $60,000 — within five years.

State lawmakers also could spend $41 million to give 2-percent pay raises to the nearly 32,000 state employees. And they could fork out $144 million to freeze tuition for in-state students at S.C. colleges and pay for building renovations and other projects.

Those expenses are included in the draft of the 2019-20 budget that will be debated in the S.C. House this week. But that projected $9.3 billion spending plan could change dramatically by the time both and the House and Senate approve it later this spring.

Lawmakers will bicker over how that money should be spent. The biggest fights will be over how to divvy up the budget’s nearly $1 billion in new money — $480 million of which must go toward one-time expenses such as voting machines.

But House budget committee chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, has warned that some of the money they are fighting over will instead have to be spent on other necessary costs, such as prison upgrades, health care and education.

“You can see how quickly the obligations of the state consume the revenues of the state,” Smith said at a Thursday budget briefing. “That’s an issue that we continue to try and control.”

Teacher, state worker pay

Pay raises for South Carolina’s 52,000 teachers and 32,000 state employees should be one of those top priorities, advocates argue.

They stress their pay lags behind other Southeastern states, contributing to declining morale, extreme turnover problems and an ongoing teacher shortage. Lawmakers say they understand.

The House on Wednesday passed a massive proposal seeking to reform the state’s public schools and acknowledged they must raise teacher pay to recruit and retain good educators.

This week, House members will debate whether to spend $159 million to raise the state’s minimum starting teacher salaries to $35,000, up from $32,000, and give teachers at least a 4-percent pay raise — the largest hike since 1984, Smith said.

“We’re losing a lot more teachers than we’re gaining,” said state Rep. Bill Whitmire, R-Oconee, chairman of the House budget committee’s panel on public education spending. “And it’s becoming a real crisis here in South Carolina.”

State workers would get a 2-percent pay raise in the current draft of the budget, the first raise for all state employees since 2016-17.

But advocates, including state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the House budget-writing committee’s vice chairwoman, worry that isn’t enough to slow turnover at state agencies. Roughly 75 percent of those workers earn less than $41,000 a year.

House budget writers also added to the budget:

$383,190 for pay raises for Department of Natural Resources officers

$1 million in yearly pay raises for officers and a community specialist at the state’s Juvenile Justice Department

$11 million yearly pay raises to increase judges’ salaries

“This basically brings our chief justice salary up to the lowest salary of a federal trial judge,” said state Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, chairman of the House budget panel that focuses on judicial spending. “That was a good marker to try to get to.”

Tuition freeze

House budget writers said Thursday they want to offer the state’s public colleges an olive branch to mend a relationship that has been frayed since 2008, when legislators slashed their budgets during the Great Recession.

This week, House members will debate spending $44 million each year to freeze the cost of tuition for in-state students. They want to spend another $100 million this year to help those schools pay for costly renovations and maintenance.

That includes nearly $18 million for the University of South Carolina system and about $5.7 million for Clemson University.

South Carolina has not borrowed to keep up with deferred college maintenance since 2000. The state has seen the consequences of that neglect in crumbling buildings and tuition hikes, House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, said Thursday.

That has left S.C. families and students holding the tab, he said.

“What I wanted to do was not assign blame and accept responsibility,” said Simrill, Ways and Means higher education subcommittee chair. “We shirked our duty.”

‘Return that money to the citizens’

After months of waiting, someone finally claimed the Mega Millions jackpot on Monday, gifting the state a $61 million tax windfall that can be spent this year.

Last month, the House’s budget-writing committee proposed to spend that money — plus another $35 million — on refunds worth about $50 per taxpayer.

That would be a marked shift from normal spending practices. In the past 25 years combined, Smith said, the Legislature has given roughly $42 million in tax cuts.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster first proposed the idea of a rebate in his executive budget in January.

Under his proposal, the state would have spent $200 million on refunds.

“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,” he said. “This is the right year to make good on that promise and return that money to the citizens.”

Where your tax dollars could go

This week, the S.C. House of Representatives will take up its proposed $9.3 billion 2019-20 spending plan that includes spending:

$85 million for a rural school district and economic development closing fund for potential infrastructure improvements

$49.7 million to cover state employee health and dental insurance increases

$10 million to hire 120 additional school-resource officers

$10 million for state prison upgrades

$2.2 million to offer students more mental-health services

SOURCE: S.C. HOUSE WAYS AND MEANS COMMITTEE
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Maayan Schechter (My-yawn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State, focusing primarily on the state budget and the lawmakers who decide how your tax dollars get spent. 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.


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