The South Carolina House on Wednesday sent to their Senate counterparts a bill that would set aside roughly half of higher-than-expected revenue for counties to repair existing roads.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the House approved a “supplemental” budget dictating how to spend roughly $373 million in additional General Fund revenue. The funds were made available last month after the state’s Board of Economic Advisors predicted an improving economy would bring in additional revenue than originally expected this upcoming year.
Lawmakers are trying to pass the supplemental budget quickly, as the House and Senate have halted negotiations the full fiscal year 2016 budget until it passes. Senators are expected to push for a larger share dedicated to road repairs.
The House plan would provide county transportation councils with $150 million in total nonrecurring revenue to be used on maintenance of state-owned secondary roads. The language clarifies the money can only be used for roads (rather than sidewalks or public transit, for instance) that are not otherwise eligible for federal funding.
The plan also sets aside roughly $70 million in incentives for the Swedish automaker Volvo. House budget writers are trying to pay for some of the incentives up front, to avoid taking a full $123 million in economic development bonds that South Carolina’s Commerce Department would otherwise use. The House plan also tries to pay down $16 million in existing state debt. Legislators say they are concerned the Commerce Department will reach its borrowing limit under the current budget proposal.
“We have opportunities to send money back to roads and we have an opportunity not to pay interest on what is tantamount to a subprime loan,” State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said on the House floor during Tuesday’s debate. “What we are doing today with this bill is governing, not being political.”
The spending plan also gives a one-time $800 bonus for all state employees earning less than $100,000 per year, as well as a new database for child support payments, and nearly $50 million for South Carolina’s Medicaid agency. Counties affected by the 2014 ice storm would also be able to seek state reimbursement for some cleanup costs.
A minority of House Republicans, led by State Reps. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville, and Joshua Putnam, R-Powdersville, unsuccessfully pushed several amendments that tried to set aside additional money through cuts to these additional projects. Simrill and other House leaders were able to get those changes voted down overwhelmingly.
Simrill argued continually setting aside one-time money for roads rather than through a consistent funding source like the gas tax would hurt South Carolina’s AAA credit rating. “When we start taking more and more General revenue and putting it in areas that really should be based on a use fee… all of a sudden, those rating agencies start looking at us,” he said.
Other Republicans said additional funding for roads could not be considered serious reform without revamping the Department of Transportation itself. “We can dedicate a billion dollars, but if we don’t make serious reform we’re going to get a very small return on our investment,” State Rep. McLain “Mac” Toole, R-W.Columbia, said in response to Simrill’s comments.
Democrats were concerned about additional language in the budget that would expand the number of students eligible for “special needs” tax credits to attend private schools. In particular, State Reps. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain, and Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said they did not believe adopted children should be considered “special needs” and eligible for the same scholarships as students with disabilities. However, State Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, argued that adopted children have their own challenges other students do not face.