COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina senators approved the state's $10 billion budget for next fiscal year Thursday, spending more time talking about social issues important to conservative members than how the state should spend its money.
The state has nearly $1.7 billion to spend in the budget starting July 1 than they thought they would have when the year began, thanks to federal stimulus money and the economy not stalling as badly as predicted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senate is spending the extra money on a 2% raise for all state employees, a $1,000 raise for teachers and dozens of projects across the state — upgrading Statehouse security, a $100 million repair fund for poorer school districts, a $60,000 hearse for a veterans cemetery, fixing buildings at colleges, funding festivals, revitalizing towns, fixing up parks and pages of other requests.
But for hours this week, senators debated issues like whether transgender students should be banned from playing on girls’ sports teams in middle and high school, whether state and local governments should be ordered to not enforce any potential federal gun seizure laws and banning state money from being used for educational materials that suggest any race is superior or any race is consciously or unconsciously racist.
It was the latest continuation of a theme from this year's legislative session after Republicans in the Senate gained three seats in the 2020 elections.
Even with a 30-16 Republican advantage in the Senate, not all the amendments passed. The transgender proposal was pulled down. But it was again a reminder of the impact increased turnout for former President Donald Trump had further down the ballot.
Democratic Rep. Dick Harpootlian introduced the final amendment of the budget, a tongue-in-cheek call to make the dodo bird the “official extinct state flightless bird.”
He suggested lawmakers would go extinct too if they continued to use time set aside to talk money to instead bring up topics that should go through the regular process the other 17 weeks of the General Assembly's year. He suggested other lawmakers were making making speeches for runs for higher office and “why they couldn’t fake that somewhere in a studio.”
“We have to be a little more focused I think on the task at hand. If you have issues you want to deal with whether it is abortion, guns reparations — whatever, can we do it sometime other than the days we're trying to get this budget through,” said Harpootlian, a Democrat from Columbia.
As they have throughout the session, Republicans didn't talk about their new advantage. They just kept bringing up their proposals.
“It’s selective outrage. I understand that,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey. The Republican from Edgefield pointed out Democrats have suggested their own issues over the years that might be better debated outside the spending plan like expanding Medicaid.
Massey ended up one of three Republicans who voted against the budget and while what was debated this week didn't bother him, he was troubled by what ended up in the spending plan.
“We need to do a better job of prioritizing our spending and making sure we spend on actual statewide needs and statewide obligations as opposed to funneling money here and there for local projects,” Massey said.
The spending plan now returns to the House, which approved the budget last month without all the extra money dumped in. The House plans a special session in June that leaders have called “budget 2.0” because it will be so expansive.
Both senators and House members expect to come back in special sessions after May to deal with additional spending and the federal COVID-19 relief money.
The state employees raises in next year's budget will cost $48 million and the teacher raises will cost $72 million.
The $10 billion spending plan includes $5 million to improve Statehouse security, $40 million to improve rest areas on South Carolina highways, $12 million to renovate downtown Spartanburg and $19 million to renovate the convention center in Columbia.
There is $15 million to fix up the opera house in Sumter and $19 million for an arts center in Greenville. The budget sets aside $20 million set aside for tourism advertising and $32 million to shore up the state’s pre-paid college tuition plan for children.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman in his 41st year in the Senate and his 20th leading the Senate’s budget committee, defended the extra projects, saying they make South Carolina a better place to live and therefore more attractive to businesses.
“I’ve never seen a budget that meets the needs of this state in the way that this one does," said Leatherman, a Republican from Florence.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.