Politics Columns & Blogs

Top issues for SC lawmakers in 2017

S.C. lawmakers return to Columbia for an organizational session Tuesday as they prepare for the January start of the legislative session, where they will face several hot issues:

Pension reform

A panel of state representatives has been reviewing how to address the state’s roughly $20 billion in pension debt.

That estimate is the difference between the amount the pension fund has to pay for the retirement benefits of state and local government workers, including teachers, and the amount it has promised to pay in the future to current employees and retirees.

To close that gap, lawmakers are looking at putting more taxpayer money into the pension system or taking more money out of the paychecks of current workers.

Lawmakers also could close the pension plan to new employees, requiring them to take part in a defined contribution plan, like a 401(k). In the short term, that would increase the pension system’s unfunded liability because new workers would not be paying into the system. But, in the long term, it would reduce the state’s pension costs.

Road repairs

South Carolina’s roads continue to crumble.

In part, that is because lawmakers have not increased the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax, the second-lowest in the nation, in nearly 30 years. That money is one of the state’s primary funding sources for repairs.

Last spring, lawmakers approved a bonding plan to pay for some road repairs, promising to return in 2017 and come up with a long-term solution.

School funding

Last spring, lawmakers approved spending $430 million more in general fund dollars on education than nine years ago, before the Great Recession. But the state is spending only slightly more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than before the recession and is educating 6 percent more students.

In recent years, Gov. Nikki Haley Haley has pushed lawmakers to spend more on education – on reading coaches, technology and students in poverty. But last spring, legislators failed to pass Haley’s proposal to spend state money to help poor districts build and renovate schools. Lawmakers could revive that spending plan in 2017 as part of an effort to address the S.C. Supreme Court’s ruling that the state has not done enough for poor schools.

Fewer added new dollars

S.C. lawmakers will have an added $446 million to spend in the budget year that starts July 1, bringing the state’s general fund budget to $7.9 billion, the Board of Economic Advisors has forecast.

That total includes $139 million reserved for one-time costs – including building projects – if the state closes its books with a surplus.

Lawmakers will decide whether the added money should go to shore up the state’s underfunded pension system, address crumbling roads and rural schools, or pay for Hurricane Matthew recovery costs.

Looming investigation

Special prosecutor David Pascoe has not made any new indictments in his State House corruption probe. The probe stems from an investigation into former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to spending campaign money on private uses.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson tried to fire Pascoe and give the investigation to another state solicitor. However, in July, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wilson – who removed himself from the case because of an unspecified conflict of interest – could not fire Pascoe.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope