The Buzz

Senate panel OKs borrowing $236 million for colleges, tech schools

Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman listens to Sen. Vincent Sheheen as the committee discusses the bond package Wednesday.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman listens to Sen. Vincent Sheheen as the committee discusses the bond package Wednesday.

A panel of state senators Wednesday approved borrowing $236.7 million for building projects, mostly at S.C. colleges and technical schools.

That bond bill is roughly half the size of a nearly $500 million borrowing proposal defeated last month in the S.C. House after opposition from Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the borrowing package by a 16-5 vote after recommending how the state should spend nearly $7 billion in general fund money in its fiscal year that starts July 1.

The Senate bond bill includes $130.7 million for public colleges and $91 million for technical schools. The only non-education spending is $15 million for repairs to state armories, which need nearly $30 million for deferred maintenance.

Haley has been outspoken in her opposition to borrowing to pay for building maintenance and capital projects. Last week, the GOP governor sent Senate President Pro Tem Leatherman, the Florence Republican who is also Finance Committee chairman, a letter saying she would veto a borrowing proposal.

A Haley ally warned Wednesday the bond bill could fail in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, told the Finance Committee that he does not think enough senators will vote to pass the borrowing proposal. The bond package – attached to a budget component – will require two-thirds support to pass the GOP-majority Senate.

“We’re biting off more than we can chew on the floor of the Senate,” Peeler told the panel.

Leatherman said if the borrowing proposal fails, it will be dead for the year.

However, Leatherman suggested there could be enough support to pass the proposal, citing an overwhelming House vote to pass a road-repair bill that Haley also threatened to veto. That plan passed the GOP-dominated House 87-20, a large enough margin to survive a veto.

“Something happened in the House between the time they killed the bond bill until they voted on the road plan,” Leatherman said.

The House bond bill was proposed by House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, and had the support of Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington.

White cited needs across the state, low interest rates and the state’s ability to borrow without increasing its debt payments as reasons to borrow for building projects.

White said Wednesday that he still wants to pass a bond bill to pay for education and health-care improvements that businesses expect from the state. The defeated House proposal also included money for economic-development projects and a workforce training center in the Charleston area.

Still, House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, a Greenville Republican and Haley ally, said Wednesday that the House again could oppose a borrowing plan. House leaders will want time to investigate the projects on any borrowing list, he said. “There's not enough time remaining in the session to do that.”

Echoing Haley’s opposition, Bannister added: “I don't believe the House Republican Caucus is going to support a bond bill with projects thrown together ... in a wish-list, Christmas-tree fashion.”

However, state Sen. John Courson, the Richland Republican who chairs the Senate’s higher-education spending subcommittee and whose district includes the University of South Carolina, defended the borrowing proposal.

The primary responsibility of state government is education – where most of the borrowed dollars would be spent, Courson told the Finance Committee.

If the borrowing plan passes, USC would receive $20 million, including $11 million to renovate its Main Street law school building for reuse, $6.3 million for repairs to the South Caroliniana library on the Horseshoe and $2.7 million to renovate the War Memorial Building at Sumter and Pendleton streets.

In a show of support for the borrowing proposal, representatives from S.C. colleges and technical schools crowded into Wednesday’s Finance Committee meeting. Those attending included Clemson University president Jim Clements and board chairman David Wilkins, College of Charleston president Glenn McConnell, Citadel president John Rosa and Ed Walton, USC’s chief operating officer.

McConnell, a former lieutenant governor and Senate president pro tempore, also wrote an opinion piece advocating for the bond bill.

Staff writer Andy Shain contributed.

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

Spending $7 billion

The Senate Finance Committee recommended Wednesday how the state should spend nearly $7 billion in general fund money in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The full Senate likely will debate the budget proposal in two weeks. Then, the spending plan will go to a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences between House and Senate budget plans. A look at how senators recommend spending state dollars:

K-12 education: Senators approved increasing the amount schools receive per student by $100 to $2,220. While far less than state law says schools should get, it is the same amount the S.C. House approved and would add $94 million to the state budget.

State employees: All state employees would not get a pay raise. However, like the House, senators approved paying the full cost of higher health insurance premiums for state workers. That cost, roughly $35 million, is the roughly the same as including a 2 percent pay raise in the budget.

Social Services: Senators approved roughly $9 million for 262 new employees, including child caseworkers and assistants, for the embattled Department of Social Services, the number requested by new director Susan Alford. “We have fully funded her request,” said state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee. Senators also approved 5-15 percent pay raises for those workers in an effort to help the agency retain workers, who have been leaving in droves.

Police body cameras: Senators approved spending $3.4 million for 2,000 body cameras for police officers and the equipment needed to store videos digitally.

Commission on Higher Education: Senators restored roughly $72 million to the commission, the state agency that oversees public colleges. The House had moved to defund the agency, unhappy with its oversight of tuition hikes and deficit-ridden S.C. State. Most of the money goes to scholarships and grants.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC