The Buzz

Schools, education winners in proposed SC borrowing

After cutting spending during the Great Recession, S.C. House budget writers say it is time for the state to borrow again for colleges and job training, overdue maintenance and to lay the groundwork for more economic development.

The state Senate’s top leader said Friday that he is inclined to agree. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is reserving judgment for now, her spokeswoman said Friday.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted late Thursday to borrow nearly $500 million for the projects, the first major state bond issue for buildings and infrastructure in 15 years.

The borrowed money would:

•  Give 12 colleges and universities across the state — including Clemson, Winthrop, Coastal Carolina, MUSC, the Citadel, the College of Charleston and USC-Beaufort, but not S.C. State — money to repair buildings, including two University of South Carolina buildings

•  Set aside money for K-12 education that could be used to help resolve a Supreme Court ruling saying the state should do more for rural schools

•  Pay for overdue maintenance of state buildings and to renovate state welcome centers

•  Improve workforce training — a Haley goal — at at least five technical colleges across the state, including a Lowcountry aeronautical training center for Boeing

•  Spend millions on water and sewer projects for economic development; that money could support more rural jobs, another Haley priority

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said Friday he would look favorably at the bond package, adding the Senate could change or add to the projects.

Gov. Haley was more iffy on the idea. Spokeswoman Chaney Adams said Haley does not plan to weigh in yet on the proposal.

‘Buildings ... get run down’

Until late Thursday, the General Assembly had not passed a similar borrowing package in 15 years.

“That’s a long time,” Leatherman said, adding the state’s needs have grown during that period.

House budget writers say now is the time to borrow because the state’s general fund is growing again and interest rates are low.

Higher education could be one winner.

Under the House plan, USC would get $15 million to renovate its law school building on Main Street, a project estimated to cost $25 million, and $5 million to renovate its South Caroliniana Library on the Horseshoe.

State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said the library houses valuable historical records. “We’re being negligent if we don’t spend the money (protecting the) historical documents that made the state what it is.”

Universities often ask for more state money for deferred maintenance but only get a small portion — if any — of their request. “It's the hardest money to come by,” USC president Harris Pastides said Friday.

The bond package also includes $20 million for overdue maintenance on state-owned buildings, including those in S.C. parks.

“Buildings, just like the house you live in, they deteriorate, get run down,” Leatherman said. “You’ve got to keep them maintained ... to continue to use them.”

‘Not going to spend it on anything’

The proposed bond package also includes $50 million for K-12 education.

That money is not geared toward one project. Instead, it is set aside as a reserve in case lawmakers need to respond with dollars to the Supreme Court’s recent decision that the state is not doing enough for rural schools, said state Rep. Kenny Bingham R-Lexington.

“(The money) is available to deal with the problem if it’s needed and, until we determine that, we’re not going to spend it on anything,” Bingham said.

Bingham, who chairs the House budget subcommittee for K-12 education, is a member of a task force — appointed by Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington — that begins meeting Monday to work on a solution to that court ruling.

In addition, $60 million would go to the state Department of Commerce to help pay for water and sewer projects needed for economic development.

Rural areas need infrastructure to compete with urban areas in attracting companies, said Leatherman.

Commerce secretary Bobby Hitt said additional money could help jump-start business recruitment in rural areas.

“Our approach has been to help communities ‘set the table’ for economic development by assisting with essential infrastructure, like roads, water and sewer,” he said.