A proposal to borrow $237 million for maintenance and buildings at state colleges, tech schools and armories took a big hit Tuesday when state senators removed it from the state’s proposed budget.
Though supporters found a way to keep the proposal alive, the chances of it passing this year diminished — some declared it dead — as senators pivoted Tuesday to another looming priority, placing a bill aimed at fixing the state’s crumbling roads on priority status for debate.
Senators agreed to unblock the roads bill in an effort to address the state’s transportation needs, a top priority for Gov. Nikki Haley, lawmakers and the business community.
Senators are considering the roads proposal with fresh eyes, now that Senate Republicans — the body’s majority — have proposed a plan to raise the gas tax to pay for road repairs coupled with a cut in state income taxes and reform to the state’s Transportation Department. Haley had said she would veto any plan that did not include those three components.
Before senators can debate that proposal, however, another major debate stands in their way – a proposed ban on abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy and later.
With only 11 scheduled days left in the session, Democrats have promised to filibuster that restriction. Sponsored by state Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, the bill already passed the House this year.
The borrowing plan — first proposed and, then, killed in the GOP-dominated House — has been opposed by Haley, who has likened it to running up the state’s credit card. It suffered its latest setback Tuesday when Haley ally state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said it violated a Senate rule that requires amendments to be closely related to the original bill.
Another Haley ally, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, who presides over the Senate, agreed with Martin, a ruling effectively nixing the borrowing package. An attempt to overturn McMaster’s ruling failed, when the Senate upheld the Republican by a 31-14 vote.
However, supporters of the borrowing plan have another plan in the works.
“It hit a little roadblock, (but) it will be back,” Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, hinted to reporters after the vote.
Less than two hours later, the Leatherman-led Finance Committee attached the plan — to borrow $130.7 million for public colleges, $91 million for technical schools and $15 million for state armory renovations — to another Senate bill.
Supporters say the plan — endorsed by the presidents of the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and MUSC — is needed to address millions of dollars in deferred maintenance needs that have piled up since the Great Recession.
But the borrowing plan faces an almost impossible uphill climb. To become law, it would have to pass the Senate. Then, two-thirds of the House would have to agree, first, to place the bill on its calendar and, then, vote for it. Then, two-thirds of the House and Senate would have to vote to override a promised Haley veto.
Martin said Tuesday that given Haley’s veto threat, he does not “know how we would get a bond bill this year.”
Another Haley ally, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, has proposed a committee study the state’s maintenance needs and propose a better plan next year.
Peeler said he doubts the Senate borrowing proposal will move forward.
But, he added, “Stranger things have happened, but this would be very strange.”
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Where the Senate stands
The state budget
The Senate will take up a bill Wednesday that would authorizes the state to spend $85 million in reserve money for various projects, including some that were part of a bond proposal. The bill received preliminary approval Tuesday, but lawmakers agreed to reserve the right to amend it.
A bill that would ban abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later is on priority status on the Senate calendar to be debated. Opponents vow to filibuster the bill or offer a never-ending pile of amendments, eating up the remaining time on the session’s calendar.
Senate Republicans, who comprise a majority of that body, offered their own highway plan last week. It would raise $800 million a year for roads through higher gas taxes, while cutting state income tax rates by 1 percent, or $700 million a year. The Senate plan also would give control of the Transportation Department to the governor. The proposal is an effort to meet Gov. Nikki Haley's three requirements for a roads bill. If the Senate OK's the proposal, the next challenge will be reaching consensus with the House, whose has passed a much smaller income tax cut, roughly $50 million a year. The final stop will be getting approval from Haley, who wants an income tax cut twice as large as the Senate proposal.