A roundup of what’s making news in South Carolina state government.
It took four days, the occasional heated moment, and even a singing legislator, but the South Carolina House of Representatives approved a nearly $6.9 billion General Fund budget ($23.6 billion total funds) Thursday in a near-unanimous vote. That is an increase from the $6.6 billion ($22.5 billion overall) in the current fiscal year.
The 110-1 vote came after House leaders decided to drop a plan to borrow roughly $500 million through bonds for various projects. Lawmakers shifted their position after Gov. Nikki Haley said she would veto the package last month, equivocating the bonds as “running up the credit card debt.” Enough Republicans agreed with the governor that budget writers realized they could not override a potential veto. Instead, they agreed to a smaller, scaled-down $116 million package that relies on one-time and reserve funds.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, told The Associated Press that negotiators thought they had a deal for a smaller $275 million bond. But Simrill said legislators learned about $16.5 million in new available funds and a potential $137 million legal settlement that made them rethink borrowing money at all.
Democrats slammed the move, with Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, accusing her colleagues of being “spinally challenged” for siding with the governor and social media. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia challenged the credit card metaphor, arguing bonds more closely resembled mortgages and should be taken while interest rates are at near-record lows.
But House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, eventually came down against the bonds. “South Carolina families balance their own budgets and our state government is appropriately required to do the same,” he said in a statement released by his office Thursday night.
The State newspaper reports the budget includes $4 million to help financially struggling South Carolina State University pay its oldest overdue bills to vendors. The money would only cover the most pressing expenses out of an estimated $11 million that the college is believed to owe overall. The House also included budget language that would authorize the replacement of the SC State Board of Trustees with a smaller, temporary panel.
The budget did not include funds to help repay counties hit hardest by a February 2014 ice storm that downed thousands of trees and damaged roads and buildings across the Midlands. But House budget writers promised Aiken County lawmakers Thursday they would work to see where potential funds could come from once the budget situation is better known in the Senate. Legislators representing 22 different counties had sought to authorize $10 million for repayment, but House leaders were clearly unhappy the proposal was not brought up while the budget was still being drafted in committee.
The budget requires one more procedural vote in the House Tuesday before it heads over to the Senate. The Senate will send the proposed budget to committee, where members will craft their own version to take up on the floor in April.
— Gov. Haley took the unusual step Thursday of calling out a powerful lawmaker in his own home district — while that lawmaker was still at the Statehouse in Columbia. During a keynote address at the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce, Haley blamed Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, for the repeated failure of ethics reform bills she supports to pass the Senate. The governor maintained her criticism was not personal, but “educational” for those in the room. Leatherman has opposed switching to independent oversight of House and Senate members, saying he believes it is unconstitutional.
— Another powerful Republican introduced a bill on Wednesday that would split up South Carolina’s massive public health and environmental agency DHEC. Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said he thinks it would make the agency more “manageable” to divide the agency’s dual purposes. The bill would place the agency’s environmental functions into the existing Department of Agriculture, while public health would merge with the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Alcohol and Other Substance Abuse to create a new “Department of Behavioral and Public Health.”