Special spending projects kept in S Carolina’s $10B budget

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – South Carolina senators neared passage of the state’s $10 billion spending plan Wednesday, rejecting one lawmaker’s call to remove all special projects to the spending plan.

The spending, also called earmarks, used to be hidden in the budget, but a new rule adopted this year requires the Senate to list any spending requested by lawmakers and not by a state agency.

Thirty-seven of the state’s 46 senators requested more than $100 million in projects for boat ramps, parks, festivals, repairs to a lighthouse and dozens of other projects.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey asked senators Wednesday to strike all the spending from the budget, opening his remarks by saying “Ï know what is going to happen to this.”

Senators voted 41-5 to keep the spending.

“I’m glad we’re disclosing them now. But it’s a dirty process,” said Massey, a Republican from Edgefield.

Massey’s proposal took out a total of more than $1.3 billion from the $10 billion budget. Along with the local, special projects it also removed projects including renovations to college buildings. matching federal money to help with tornado damage and $50 million toward two veteran nursing homes.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman pulled out a pen as Massey spoke, taking notes on his copy of the more than 550-page budget. Then he spoke.

“Surely the senator from Edgefield is not against providing nursing homes for veterans,” “the Republican from Florence said. “Maybe he misspoke when he talked about that.”

Leatherman said the spending was not irresponsible. Other senators said the point of being more transparent was so each item could be weighed on its own instead of just removing all the projects from the spending plan.

“This is my opinion that this is what we need to continue moving this state forward,” Leatherman said.

Sen. Tom Davis said lawmakers have a responsibility to spend on projects their constituents think is important as a check on state agencies who may not share those concerns.

“That ought to be honored and not called something dirty,” said Davis, a Republican from Beaufort.

Senators have spent Tuesday and Wednesday debating a number of amendments to the budget, including a approved proposal that would start to cut about half the funding per student for school districts that have more than 5% of their regular students in virtual programs starting next school year.

Other proposals were delayed, like requiring senators and House members to get permission from the head of a cabinet agency or the chamber leader before flying on the state plane and banning transgender students from playing on girls’ sports teams in middle and high school.

Senators have a lot more money to spend than expected after federal stimulus money and fewer economic problems from the COVID-19 pandemic kept tax collections higher than originally forecast.

In all, South Carolina lawmakers have nearly $1.7 billion extra to spend in the 2021-22 fiscal year. And that does not count $2.1 billion of federal stimulus money Congress approved in March that South Carolina has years to spend.

The $10 billion spending plan starting July 1 includes a 2% raise for state employees and a $1,000 raise for all teachers.

There are projects such as $5 million to improve Statehouse security, $40 million to improve rest areas on South Carolina highways and $7 million to help prosecutors and public defenders with court backlogs made worse because of COVID-19.

There is $20 million set aside for tourism advertising and $32 million to shore up the state’s pre-paid college tuition plan for children.

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.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.

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