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Senate starts debate on $12.6B state budget

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Published: Apr. 26, 2022 at 7:57 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - This week, the South Carolina Senate is figuring how it believes more than $12 billion is best spent.

Senators started debate on the upcoming state budget Tuesday with a $12.6 billion spending plan proposal before them.

While the House of Representatives worked through the bulk of its budget debate in a day, senators anticipate their part will take at least the rest of this week.

This year’s debate in the Senate is the first under the leadership of Sen. Harvey Peeler, R – Cherokee, who became chair of the Senate Finance Committee following the death of late longtime chair Hugh Leatherman, who died last November.

At the heart of the Senate’s proposed spending plan is Peeler’s own signature proposal: a massive $2 billion tax cut and rebate.

“Members of the Senate, before you is a budget that I’m proud to call the budget for the people,” Peeler said to begin debate on the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate’s budget includes $1 billion in income tax cuts and another $1 billion in direct rebates, which would be sent to every income tax filer in South Carolina in amounts ranging from $100 to $700.

The Senate tax cut plan would cost about $1.3 billion more than the $700 million plan the House accounted for in its budget, which includes smaller cuts for the next year, gradually increasing in subsequent years, and no rebates.

“Some of you are concerned that we’re returning too much,” Peeler told his colleagues. “I want you all to rest assured and rest at ease. If the stimulus taught us one thing, it taught us that it churns the economy and boomerangs back to the General Fund.”

Among the more substantial changes the Senate is considering from the House budget, senators nixed a proposal during committee discussions to give every state employee a one-time, $1,500 bonus, though they are opting to keep a 3% raise for state workers in their spending plan.

The Senate proposal would also set a new statewide minimum salary for teachers at $38,000, which is lower than the $40,000 minimum included in the House plan but higher than the current $36,000 minimum.

Teacher groups have called for the higher starting salary, but senators say their plan still allocates the same amount of money to public schools.

“We have provided districts now with the flexibility to use dollars in the best way that they see to advance the students in their districts, recognizing that every district is different, every student population is different,” Sen. Sean Bennett, R – Dorchester, said. “We will return that money in a block-grant style and let the districts make those decisions.”

Neither chamber’s proposal would require districts already paying above the minimum give their teachers a raise.

During Tuesday’s debate, Sen. Mike Fanning, D – Fairfield, proposed an amendment that would increase pay for every teacher in the state by $2,500. That amendment was voted down.

“For the first time in the history of South Carolina, we will pass a teacher raise, but not every teacher in South Carolina will get that raise,” Fanning said. “This budget has the money to do that.”

Both chambers’ budgets also include raises for state law enforcement officers, tuition freezes at public colleges and universities, and money to build a new facility for youths with severe mental health needs in the juvenile justice system.

The Senate will very likely adopt a budget that is different from what the House passed, so a smaller group of members from both chambers would need to later work out a compromise to send to the governor.

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