S.C. Senate, House reach budget deal


COLUMBIA - South Carolina House members and senators reached an agreement on the state's $13 billion budget Thursday, barely 24 hours after a tense meeting where both sides appeared to be out of patience.

Thursday's meeting was all smiles and jokes. The key sticking point - how much money to give Clemson University to make significant progress on the state's first veterinary school - went to the Senate, which set aside $102 million. The House spending plan had about $8 million.

Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler announced the deal, ticking off joint accomplishments like about $100 million toward a continuing effort to lower state income tax rates, this time from 6.5% to 6.4%, as well as salary increases for almost all state employees and most state law enforcement officers and teachers.

"And something that is near and dear to my heart, we funded a new school of veterinary medicine at Clemson University," a smiling Peeler said.

It was a very different mood from Wednesday, when Peeler scowled as Democratic House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said the Senate was "putting pets over people" and "the House being concerned with higher ed and the Senate being concerned with Mister Ed."

It was the House members who were deferential during Thursday's meeting.

"We're not supposed to agree on everything. But when we disagree, we come together and we talk about it, and we do what 's best for the people of South Carolina," Rutherford said.

Republican House Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister said he didn't know whether Rutherford deserved credit or blame for creating a crisis after the Wednesday meeting. But it seemed to spur the deal.

"Having a budget is the most important thing we could do, and I appreciate you reminding me and the House conferees and the Senate conferees at the end of the day brinksmanship is bad for everybody," said Bannister, who was overseeing his first budget as committee leader.

It seemed like everybody got something as tax revenues continue to roll into the state at record levels. Budget writers had well more than $1 billion more to spend for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

The governor's office asked for and received $200 million for the Office of Resilience for a fund to help with the aftermath of natural disasters.

Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate got hundreds of millions of dollars for downtown revitalizations, festivals, park improvements and other local projects.

Along with a pay raise of at least 5% for every state employee, the spending plan also covers any increase in health insurance premiums.

Some law enforcement positions, like state troopers, state agents and officers and nurses in prisons, could see 10% or more in raises.

The budget includes more than $1 billion to help Volkswagen-backed Scout Motors build a plant for electric SUVs near Columbia and about $120 million in a fund to help rural districts build schools.

"It takes care of our kids, our teachers, our law enforcement," Bannister said.

Both the full House and Senate have to approve the compromise; then it is sent to the governor, who can veto individual items. The General Assembly can put those items back into the spending plan with a two-thirds vote.

The new budget starts on July 1.