COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina General Assembly finally passed a resolution Tuesday to allow state government to keep spending after the fiscal year ends as lawmakers try to get a handle on the damage to the economy done by the coronavirus.
They then ended the regular session. Lawmakers might not be back until mid-September.
Also on Tuesday, the House passed a Senate bill giving lawmakers a wide range of items they can take up in special sessions the rest of the year. House Speaker Jay Lucas said they would certainly be back for two weeks starting Sept. 15 and whenever else they might be needed.
“We’re going to need maximum flexibility to come back and do the business of South Carolina,” said Lucas, a Republican from Hartsville.
The House had passed the budget resolution April 8, but the Senate then passed its own proposal, changing some of the requirements put on state-owned utility Santee Cooper.
The proposal that passed sets aside $175 million in money for emergency COVID-19 spending. That cash would go toward at least 1,000 contact tracers to find people who were in contact with an infected person, and additional virus testing.
On Tuesday, the Senate agreed with the proposal despite a few senators who were concerned they should have taken more time to review the contact tracing portion.
Several of the House’s more conservative Republicans also questioned hiring the people, saying they worried health workers voluntarily asking questions and encouraging people to get tested after being exposed to COVID-19 could intrude on civil liberties. Other House members from both parties said contact tracing has been done for decades for other diseases, such as tuberculosis or AIDS.
It would also set aside $15 million to help with additional expenses to allow people to safely vote in the June 9 primary and $1.5 million to hire a private firm to help the state keep up with the $1.9 billion being sent from the federal government to fight the coronavirus. The proposal freezes the raises teachers get for each additional year of experience and allows state agencies to furlough employees if they lose too much money.
The General Assembly ended an unusual regular session which saw them stay away from Columbia for more than two months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They gave themselves unusually wide latitude Tuesday to take up any bill that has passed the House or Senate. Typically, lawmakers can only take up bills that have passed both chambers in different forms.
Legislative leaders warned they could be busy in that unusual September session. Along with regular matters and possible coronavirus legislation, they will need to finish a new state budget.
The House passed a $10 billion budget before the pandemic began, but that was before the economy cratered. Economists estimate the state’s planned $1.9 billion surplus in the budget year starting July 1 could be cut in half or worse.
The continuing resolution passed by the House would allow the state to keep spending at this year’s budget levels even after the spending plan ends June 30.
Also passed on Tuesday were bills requiring South Carolina to put in place a system for the State Law Enforcement Division to track rape kits; ban shackling of inmates as they give birth; provide more nutrition for pregnant inmates; provide pregnant inmates with bottom bunks and require them to be handcuffed in front so they can break a fall easier. Both bills head to Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk.