Politics & Government

SC spending plan projected to be largest ever, exceeding $10 billion, forecasters say

South Carolina lawmakers got their first look Friday at how much new money they will have available to spend when they return to Columbia in 2020 and begin debate over the upcoming year’s budget.

It’s a lot — nearly $2 billion, or roughly twice what they had extra to spend last year, the state’s budget forecasters announced, crediting a growing economy.

The additional cash is expected to bring the state’s total general fund budget that starts July 1 to $10.2 billion, according to projections.

State lawmakers project the new money, in part, will go toward raising teacher pay for another year and using some of its one-time money to fix years of deferred maintenance at state-owned buildings, including the state’s prisons, they recently told The State.

Of that new money, $815 million is recurring, allowing some will likely go toward those teacher raises, lawmakers say. Another $1 billion of the new money is strictly for one-time costs, which could help pay for security upgrades at the state’s prisons and maintenance at universities.

S.C. House budget chief Murrell Smith told The State the expectation this go-around, similar to last year’s efforts, is to collaborate with the Senate’s most powerful budget writer, Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster.

“All of us have been on the same page from early discussions that we need to prioritize the core functions of government in this state and focus our resources on those areas,” said Smith, a Sumter Republican. “We made promises to the education community and to the teachers, and we need to honor those commitments, and we’re also going to honor the commitment to the taxpayers that we need to prudently spend their money,” whether that means money returned to the taxpayer or in the form of tax reform, Smith added.

Smith continued: “With the economy like it is and the concerns we hear from individuals in the business community, we need to really take a hard look at our tax system.”

Smith was not the only lawmaker with tax reform on the mind Friday.

“A $10B General Fund budget is too high,” tweeted Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “An additional $815M in RECURRING revenue means we are taking more than we need. It’s time for tax reform and a reduction in the highest income tax rates in the Southeast.”

And though Gov. Henry McMaster won’t reveal his budget proposal until January, the Columbia Republican gave South Carolinians a hint at what his proposed spending plan might include.

“Prosperity requires fiscal restraint and conservative stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” McMaster tweeted Friday. “As I have said before, a surplus means prioritizing and funding the state’s most critical needs, then returning the rest to the taxpayers or cutting taxes.”

South Carolina’s taxpayers are sure to hear a lot about tax reform next year, given seats for all 170 lawmakers are up for re-election.

But state leaders reiterated to The State Friday an election — even in a presidential year — should bear no weight on the budget.

The budget should not be based on what is good for now, but what is good for the state long term, said Smith, whose Ways and Means Committee gets to write the budget’s first draft.

“I’m not so much concerned about an election,” he said, adding he’s looking out for “the future of South Carolina.”

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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.
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