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SC Senate To Begin Discussions On $9 Billion Budget

The South Carolina Senate is getting ready to have its say on how the state should spend its nearly $9 billion budget for the upcoming year that includes raises for teachers, other state workers, and judges, and a freeze on college tuition for in-state students.

Senators will begin their debate Wednesday so they can attend the funeral of U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, who died April 6 at the age of 97.

The plan, approved earlier this month by the Senate Finance Committee, allows for nearly $1 billion more in spending than the last budget.

Raising the pay of state workers was a priority, including $159 million going toward increasing the minimum starting teacher salary by $3,000 to $35,000 and to give all teachers a 4 percent pay raise.

"I want to commend the House for sending us a great budget, one of the best budgets I think we've received over there in a long, long time," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said Thursday.

[Related Content: SC Gov McMaster Announces Executive Budget: Prioritizes Education, Tax Cuts ]

The committee agreed to spend $41 million to cover a 2 percent cost of living pay raise for state workers as well as $50 million to cover state employee health and dental insurance increases.

State workers who make $70,000 and less a year also would get a $600 bonus. The one-time bonus would cost $20 million, according to the Senate committee's plan.

"Although we weren't able to get more, and I appreciate members of this committee that work with us, I think that this is something that is substantial," Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson said. "I have talked with state employees and others and they will be very appreciative of this."

Some judges also get a 15 percent raise under the Senate plan. The Senate budget sets aside nearly $8 million in salary increases for judicial department employees, while the House set aside $11 million. The Senate version increases pay for current, sitting judges, solicitors and public defenders, Senate President Harvey Peeler said during budget deliberations.

"We've wrestled with judges' pay for quite some time ... especially our chief justice and the Supreme Court," said Peeler, a Republican from Gaffney. "We've wrestled with 15 percent judges pay versus what we've increased our teachers and state employees, but we've heard loud and clear that judges need this increase and have needed it for quite some time."

Other provisions in the Senate's budget would pay $25 million in one time money for South Carolina farmers hurt by flooding caused by Hurricanes Michael and Florence in 2018. Farmers who accept aid from the state would have to sign an affidavit and pay back the state if federal aid funds become available to them or if the federal grant arrives prior to the act becoming law.

Additionally, $40 million would go toward purchasing a new statewide voting system; $10 million would be spent to improve prison safety; and nearly $44 million would be spent to freeze college tuition for in-state students.

The Senate plan also takes the $64 million the state expects to receive in income tax paid by the winner of October's $878 million Mega Millions jackpot, combine it with an additional $6 million and send $50 rebate checks in December to the address on every South Carolina income tax form.

Leatherman told senators to expect a few days of long debate to pass the budget before the end of the week.

Copyright 2019 WFAE

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