COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA) – South Carolina lawmakers have agreed on a final budget for next year that includes $200 million more for roads, $200 million more for schools, and pay raises for teachers and state employees. The money for roads comes from the state’s General Fund, which typically has not been used for roads and bridges, which are primarily paid for with gas tax money.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, was one of the three senators and three House members who worked out the final budget. He pushed for using General Fund money for roads. “My argument was that, in a year when we’ve got over a billion dollars in new revenue, we ought to be talking about committing that money to pay for those roads and bridges and not raising gas taxes. There’s no reason to go back to the people of South Carolina and ask for a tax increase when we have surplus funds here in Columbia.”
That $200 million will be used to borrow more than $2 billion to fix existing roads and bridges. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, argued on the Senate floor that this was illegal deficit spending because the state would be using money it doesn’t have yet to pay for roads, comparing it to the federal government’s deficit spending.
But Sen. Davis says, “What Washington, D.C. does is it spends more money than it takes in. We’re not doing that. We’re constitutionally obligated to spend no more than we take in in taxes. He also talked about debt. Well, the federal debt is $20 trillion now and there’s no prospect of paying it back. What we’re talking about doing here in South Carolina is taking $200 million, on a recurring basis, putting it on a line in the budget, and having that money paid on a yearly basis to improve roads and bridges.”
But there is other criticism of the budget’s use of $200 million for roads. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, who was also on the budget conference committee, says, “Unfortunately, Gov. Haley said that she was going to veto any long-term funding source for our roads, and that meant that the only thing that the legislature could do, unless we could override her veto, was to take money from schools, take money from police, take money from other areas and use that money to try to rebuild the roads of this state. It’s not a long-term solution. It’ll help patch some things.”
The budget includes about $200 million more for education, including raising the per-pupil spending by $130, and a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. But Sen. Sheheen says if that $200 million were not going to roads, and lawmakers had instead found an ongoing, reliable source of money to fix roads, that money would go to schools, law enforcement, and health care.
But Sen. Davis says, “We increased the funding for schools, for instance. We increased money for health care spending. We increased money for law enforcement. And so when you hear those interest groups talk about not being funded adequately, they’re all being increased, they’re just not being increased to the degree they want.”
The budget also includes: $72 million to match federal money for flood relief, including $12 million already spent on repairing flood damage to roads and bridges; $40 million for grants to farmers whose crops were destroyed or damaged by the floods; $2.4 million for police body cameras; and a 3.5 percent pay raise for state employees.
The full Senate on Tuesday adopted the budget the conference committee came up with. The House still has to approve it, which will send it to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk.