By RICK BRUNDRETT
Lawmakers on Monday sent a strong message in adopting a state budget for the fiscal year that starts next week.
Let the spending party begin – with your tax dollars.
The Legislature overwhelmingly approved a $32.3 billion total budget for fiscal 2022, which includes state, federal and “other” funds, budget records show. Not included in that amount, according to the official “summary control document,” was $176 million in earlier approved spending from the state capital reserve fund, mainly for maintenance, renovation and other building projects at public colleges and universities.
Combined, the overall spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is more than $2.5 billion, or nearly 8.5%, higher compared to the current budget, which lawmakers set at the same levels as in the prior fiscal year after the COVID-19 outbreak hit South Carolina.
Lawmakers on Monday approved, by a total vote of 147-11, a state budget version that was quickly adopted last week by a joint budget conference committee. It now goes to Gov. Henry McMaster for consideration of vetoes; lawmakers are expected to return next week to take up any vetoes.
The budget conference committee was made up of Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee; Senate president Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington; Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee; and Reps. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, and Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon.
Excluding capital reserve fund spending, the conference committee’s budget version was $234 million higher than the House’s amended plan approved earlier this month and $529 million more than the Senate’s version adopted in April. The “new” spending in the conference committee’s plan includes an estimated $520.6 million in additional recurring revenues and $1.3 billion in projected and actual surplus dollars.
The budget approved Monday includes a 2.5% base pay increase for state employees at a total cost of $59.4 million, plus another $32.4 million and $5.9 million to cover employee retirement contribution and health insurance increases, respectively. Teachers statewide would get a $1,000 salary increase at a total cost of $72 million, while another $100 million was designated for building improvement projects in poorer school districts.
But the conference committee also carved out tens of millions, mainly from surplus funds, for lawmakers’ pet projects, which The Nerve previously detailed this year. The projects include:
- $23.2 million to allow the state Department of Natural Resources to buy a 23-acre James Island parcel, which currently is the site of a Catholic convent.
- $19 million through the state Arts Commission for a downtown Greenville convention center. Bannister and Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville, each proposed the amount in separate budget earmarks.
- $15 million through the Arts Commission for Sumter Opera House renovations. Leatherman pushed for the amount as the lead sponsor of a Senate earmark, while Smith was the lead sponsor of a proposed $5 million House earmark for the project.
- $12 million through the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT) for unspecified “infrastructure” projects in downtown Spartanburg. Peeler was a co-sponsor of a Senate earmark for the amount; three Republican Spartanburg County House members proposed a $5 million earmark for the project.
- $9 million through SCPRT for renovations at the Columbia Convention Center. Democratic Sens. Darrell Jackson and Dick Harpootlian of Richland County proposed a $19 million earmark for the project.
- $8.3 million through the state Department of Commerce for the “Gallo Economic Development Project.” Winemaker giant Gallo plans to construct a $400 million distribution and bottling facility in Chester County.
The above list doesn’t include millions more out of surplus funds that lawmakers collectively funneled to various nonprofit organizations. The Legislature, however, didn’t designate any of the massive windfall to be refunded to taxpayers.
Bryce Fiedler and Kelly Brady, policy analysts with the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.