S.C. lawmakers debate proposed $9B budget

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COLUMBIA - The South Carolina House debated its version of the state's $9 billion spending plan Tuesday as Democrats struggled to make changes in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Work Tuesday focused on disputed budget areas and amendments after the House spent Monday approving dozens of sections of the budget by large margins and without debate.

The tone for the day was set not long after debate started, when Rep. Jonathon Hill of Townville said his fellow Republicans in House leadership told the party's members to avoid supporting Democratic-led amendments.

Majority Leader Gary Simrill said Hill's comments mischaracterized their meeting and missed the point, which was specific to a $61 million income tax windfall the state expects from the $878 million lump sum that will be paid to the winner of last year's Mega Millions lottery.

"This one-time windfall has not been certified and, as of yet, the funds have not been received," said Simrill, a Republican from Rock Hill. "We expected amendments from our Democrat colleagues about how to spend this money. It's unwise to allocate money until it has been certified."

Two other Democratic budget amendments to reduce class sizes in schools were rejected.

Rep. Russell Ott asked the House to restore state-mandated student-to-teacher ratios, which were suspended a decade ago during budget cuts in the Great Recession.

"We need to do this because in some areas of South Carolina, classroom sizes are unimaginable," the Democrat from St. Matthews said. "I believe (the proviso) has created quite the burden for our teachers and kind of short-changed our students."

Democratic Rep. Wendy Brawley of Hopkins, whose district enters a western portion of Sumter, offered another amendment requiring one teacher for every 15 students in kindergarten to third-grade classrooms in rural schools. Brawley said smaller class sizes are especially helpful in rural districts with large populations of black students.

"We know reduction in class size really does work," Brawley said. "We're simply focusing on those schools we claim we care about."

Democrats also offered an amendment requiring the University of South Carolina to use a portion of its budget to recruit African-American students to its professional schools. The House voted in favor.

Other items expected to be debated and approved include allocating $44 million to freeze tuition for in-state college students and $40 million for new voting machines.