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South Carolina budget proposal would include raises for teachers and state workers

South Carolina's House is debating a spending plan including raises for teachers and state employees. Requests from agencies exceed available funds, resulting in a tight budget.

Teachers and state employees would get raises under a spending plan being debated by the South Carolina House this week, but many other state agency requests are being rejected as the influx of money from pandemic relief and good economic times slows.

South Carolina is in a good place economically, with revenues up despite tax cuts, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bruce Bannister told his colleagues last week as he gave a brief overview of the proposed $13.2 billion budget for next fiscal year.

With unemployment at a historic low, the $1.7 billion extra that lawmakers have to spend would be quite a boon. But Bannister said state agencies made about $4.7 billion in requests.

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"We’re going back to sort of normal budget levels, and with the requests, this actually ends up being a pretty tight budget year," the Republican from Greenville said.

South Carolina's budget was about $13.8 million this fiscal year.

The House budget session starts Monday with the approval of the dozens of sections of the spending plan on which House members agree. Debate will begin after that, and if it's like the last few years, it will feature the chamber's most conservative members taking up social issues such as eliminating money they say goes toward university diversity initiatives.

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The proposed 2024-25 fiscal year budget still contains a lot of new spending.

It would put $200 million toward raising teacher pay. Every teacher would get a raise and the minimum salary for a starting teacher would be increased to $47,000 a year — a nearly 70% increase from a decade ago. The budget also would allow teachers to get a yearly raise for each of their first 28 years instead of their first 23.

All state employees would get raises, too. Those making less than $66,666 would get a flat $1,000 raise, while those who earn that amount or more would get a 1.5% pay bump. The state also would pay $107 million to cover the increase in health insurance premiums for workers — something each budget has done for more than 10 years.

Homeowners would share in $500 million in property tax relief as the state taps into a surplus created from a sales tax increase in 2006. The average savings would range from $277 to $472, state officials said. Gov, Henry McMaster wanted to spend that $500 million on bridge repairs.

The House plan includes $200 million to replace bridges, many of which are at least 60 years old. Representatives included a similar amount in their budget for this year, but the Senate removed it.

The House budget would spend $100 million to continue income tax cuts that are bringing the state's top income tax rate from 7% to 6%.

The House would give state universities $61 million in exchange for freezing tuition increases, and would pay technical colleges $95 million to continue to provide scholarships for students who want to fill critical jobs in health care, manufacturing and education.

The proposed budget would give $8 million to the South Carolina Election Commission to help enforce the state's new early voting law.

It would allocate $5 million to continuing the work to move the Department of Motor Vehicles to a new computer system that will support an app with a mobile driver's license and electronic vehicle titles. The work needs to be finished by the end of the decade or the old system will likely crash, said Republican Rep. Heather Ammons Crawford, of Socastee.

Law enforcement wouldn't get as large increases as it did in previous budgets. There is $7 million to lease a new Department of Juvenile Justice jail and $1.6 million to hire two trial teams at the state attorney general's office that local prosecutors can invite to their courthouses to help handle growing backlogs in criminal cases.

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"The last two years of raises we have given to law enforcement and the Department of Corrections have worked. Morale is up, they’ve been able to hire and retain much better," said Republican Rep. Phillip Lowe, of Florence.

The House budget would also continue what supporters say are investments in economic growth. About $55 million would be set aside to further expand the state port in Charleston and $29 million would be spent on improvements at the main airports in Myrtle Beach, Greenville and Charleston.

Finally, $2 million is in the House budget to promote events around the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, including a campaign to remind people that events in South Carolina helped turn the tide of that war in the favor of the newly created United States.

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