COLUMBIA (AP) — The South Carolina Senate passed changes Tuesday to the state budget that would provide a small raise to most teachers and a hazard pay bonus for some lower-paid state workers.
Now attention turns to the House, where leaders may prefer not to change the $9 billion budget at all with worries that COVID-19 could continue to hobble the economy and cut state revenues.
Lawmakers have already agreed to keep spending levels for the budget year that started in July at the same levels as the year before.
The Senate also approved how it thinks South Carolina should spend the remaining $668 million in federal money for COVID-19 expenses, including setting aside $425 million toward repaying the fund that doles out unemployment benefits. The state has already set aside $500 million in federal money to replenish that fund.
Six months ago, before the pandemic started, economists thought the state would have an extra $800 million collected in fees and taxes to spend in the 2020-2021 budget. With tax revenues and fees plunging, that number has been revised to just over $80 million.
Lawmakers do have about $775 million saved from the past two budget cycles, and the Senate bill passed Tuesday during a special session does set aside $500 million to try to prevent cuts if revenues fall further.
The bill sets aside $50 million for education, most of it going to teachers in what are called "step increases" — annual raises of several hundred dollars given to most teachers based on how many years they have worked. Those raises were frozen for this budget year in the spring as COVID-19 spread. If approved, teachers will get the extra money set retroactively to July 1.
The bill also gives $1,000 hazard pay bonuses to around 12,000 state employees, such as prison guards, state troopers and some health care workers, who make less than $50,000 a year and had to keep working during the pandemic. The lawmakers set aside $20 million for those bonuses.
The Senate adds $4 million for additional school nurses and more than $4 million to provide an extra $175 for poll workers this November. It also provides $40 million to promote tourism, which supporters said could be especially important next spring if the pandemic is under control.
The vote kicks the budget to the House, which could refuse to take up the Senate changes and choose to keep spending exactly at last year's levels until January when a new General Assembly is sworn in or beyond.
"If the House refuses to take it up, none of this changes," said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, a Democrat from West Columbia.
The Senate also approved other proposals to spending the COVID-19 federal money, including $93 million for additional coronavirus testing, $100 million for tutoring and other needs for virtual schools. Also included is $100 million to help local governments and $20 million to help food banks, provide utility payment relief and mental counseling for people struggling with the pandemic
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