BY BRUCE MILLS
There are a few big items up for discussion in the upcoming state legislative session, but K-12 education appears it will be front and center again.
That was the belief of Sumter County's two state senators …
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That was the belief of Sumter County's two state senators and other members of the local delegation who spoke Thursday at the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce's 2019 Legislative Breakfast.
The topic of teacher pay will likely be the big issue as the General Assembly attempts to improve educational outcomes long-term in the state to better fill the workforce pipeline in today's high-skills economy, which continues to have technology advancements. When that pipeline is better, it improves quality of life in the state's communities, according to widespread research.
The breakfast was held at Central Carolina Technical College's Health Sciences Center, 133 S. Main St., in downtown Sumter, and all five delegation members in attendance - state Sens. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, and Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, and state Reps. Wendy Brawley, D-Hopkins, Robert Ridgeway, D-Manning, and David Weeks, D-Sumter - referenced public education in their comments.
McElveen and Johnson said South Carolina teacher pay now is similar to the state's roads system. The Palmetto State went 30 years until 2017 to increase its gas tax to fund road improvements.
"We didn't take care of our roads for such a long period of time," McElveen said, "and now it's taking time for us to catch-up and get where we need to be with our road maintenance. Teacher pay is the same way. We didn't raise it for a very long time. We fell behind. Last year, we had a 4% increase, and that was absolutely not enough. I wish we could have done 5% last year, but I think we will come back and do some more this year."
The upcoming 2020 session will be the second year of this two-year session. Bills introduced last year or this year that do not pass by the end of 2020's session are thrown out and must be introduced from scratch in 2021.
Currently, the minimum teacher salary in the state is $35,000.
On teacher pay, Johnson referenced a 5% proposed raise he has seen in one bill or Gov. Henry McMaster's idea of giving every teacher in the state a $3,000 raise, which he announced this week.
The 5% raise would cost the state $162 million, Johnson said, while the $3,000 raise would cost $211 million.
He added improving K-12 education is more than just teacher pay, referencing teacher-student ratios. With a $1.8 billion budget surplus for next year, it's the time to make some necessary changes. Yearly budget forecasts after 2020 don't suggest revenue increases, Johnson said.
"If we are going to do anything to help education - and help things like health care and the retirement fund - this is the year we need to get it done while we have the revenue to do so," Johnson said.
The start date for the legislative session is Jan. 14.
Two county delegation members were not in attendance at the breakfast. State Reps. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, and Will Wheeler, D-Bishopville, were both out of state on business.
About 70 members, consisting mostly of Chamber and CCTC members, attended the gathering, and a few participated in a question-and-answer session at the end.
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