Lawmakers will have an added $1.2 billion to spend when they return to Columbia in January.
The S.C. Board of Economic Advisors approved a forecast Tuesday saying the state’s general fund for the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2016, will be $7.7 billion, including the added money.
Lawmakers will choose whether to spend the added money to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, improve rural schools in response to a S.C. Supreme Court ruling or pay for flood-damage costs.
“All of that’s got to be considered, and that’s what we’ll be starting work on,” said S.C. House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, whose committee starts the budget process.
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Lawmakers also will have to consider requests for more money from S.C. state agencies – including education, law enforcement. Medicaid and mental health, White said.
The added $1.2 billion includes $766.5 million in recurring money, which should be available to the state in future years, and $457.6 million in one-time money.
Not all of the recurring money is from growing state revenues. For example, legislators agreed to spend $204 million in this year’s budget, which began July 1, on one-time projects. Next year, that recurring money will be available again to spend on another cause.
In previous budgets, one-time money was spent to pay for recurring needs, which created holes in subsequent budgets.
But that practice was abandoned last year, said Economic Advisors chairman Chad Walldorf, a former budget director under Gov. Mark Sanford. “I greatly salute the governor and the (Legislature) for what I consider much more prudent budgeting and hope they continue that practice moving forward.”
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he will push for some of the added $1.2 billion to be spent on road repairs.
Last spring, Davis filibustered a bill to increase the state’s gas tax to pay to repair S.C. roads and bridges. Instead, lawmakers approved sending $216.4 million in surplus money to the state’s 46 counties for road repairs.
However, state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, said while some of the state’s growing revenues should go to roads, a long-term solution to pay for repairs still is needed.
“It (the added money) does not change the fact that you need a reliable, sustainable source for the maintenance, repair and expansion of infrastructure,” said Simrill, who sponsored a proposal to increase the state’s gas tax that passed the House last spring.
The state Transportation Department says it needs an added $1.5 billion a year to repair and expand the state’s highway system.
Both Davis and Simrill said some money of the added money should be given back to taxpayers.
The S.C. Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative group, criticized lawmakers who want to spend the added money.
“Unfortunately, instead of protecting taxpayers by reducing the state income tax, paying down pension obligations or shrinking the size and scope of state government, Democrats and liberal Republicans appear to be working quickly on ways to spend this new money,” said Club for Growth executive director RJ May.
Davis predicted the extra money in the budget will cause a feeding frenzy, turning wish-lists from state agencies and organizations into needs.
“You’re going to see people descending upon Columbia like locusts.”