State senators said they have been able to scrape together $20 million to help replace South Carolina’s aging bus fleet in next year’s budget, but that amount is lower than what lawmakers set aside for the current year.
And it’s far short of the estimated $34 million that the South Carolina Department of Education says it needs each year to get its aging fleet on a retirement cycle that state law requires.
Earlier this year, the state House of Representatives set aside $12 million for new buses from the Capital Reserve Fund. The Senate on Thursday increased that to $20 million. State Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, said most of the extra funds came as senators learned the S.C. Department of Revenue did not need most of the $6 million it was receiving to enroll people in identity and credit protection programs.
Scott said the $20 million will allow the Department of Education to buy approximately 240 new buses, but admitted it was not enough. “We’re working really hard to replace South Carolina’s deteriorating fleet,” he told South Carolina Radio Network after the vote. “But you’ve got to remember, as fast we eliminate buses from that (20 years and above) category, there are other buses slowly going into that category.”
In fact, two-thirds of the state fleet are older than the 15 years. That’s significant because a 2007 state law requires the Department of Education to replace 1/15th of its buses each year to avoid that. But lawmakers have not fully funded the estimate $34 million needed since the recession began impacting its budget in 2009. South Carolina is the only state that owns and operates its entire fleet.
However State Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he believes lawmakers could find the money if they made it a priority, noting that the proposed 2014-2014 budget is over $400 million higher than the current fiscal year.
“You have all these other things that people want to fund,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “Then you get to near the end, and the only way you’re going to find money is to scrounge it up. I just think that we ought to make the safety of transporting children to school and back home a higher priority.”
Massey did say $20 million was much better than the House version, which he said would essentially replace buses every 30 years at that pace.
The additional funds for the buses was passed on a voice vote. Senators voted 33-7 in favor of the overall Capital Reserve Fund expenditures. Most of the “no” votes were over other issues.
The issue of bus purchases will likely come up again once a conference committee of House and Senate members meet to negotiate a final budget in June.