Empty House chamber tells story as S.C. lawmakers can't agree on budget


COLUMBIA - Flush with extra money to spend, South Carolina's House and Senate still haven't reached a deal on the state's $13 billion spending plan set to start July 1.

While no one is talking publicly about what is causing the delay, an obvious sign of problems came Wednesday, when House Speaker Murrell Smith presided over a nearly empty House chamber for less than three minutes for a session that was supposed to approve the compromise.

The three members of the House and three senators trying to resolve the differences have more than five weeks to come up with a deal in the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

But just in case, the Senate on Tuesday before taking up an abortion bill agreed to a resolution allowing the government to keep spending money at current levels if a budget isn't finalized before the fiscal year begins at the end of June.

"I'm a hope for the best, prepare for the worst kind of guy," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler, who is leading his side.

While the state government would stay open with the deal, the more than $1 billion in extra tax revenue the state collected this budget year couldn't be spent. The revenue is currently set aside for things like state employee salary increases, building rural schools and hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects like downtown revitalizations, festivals and park improvements.

Neither chamber has specified what they can't agree on, but conference committee meetings last week offered hints. As they went through dozens of items determining if they would agree to the House or Senate version of the budget, they skipped over some spending for the state's major universities.

Clemson University wants $87.5 million to build the first veterinary school in the state. Peeler, a vocal and proud Clemson graduate, persuaded the Senate to agree to the full amount. The House plan only offered $7.5 million.

Money for the University of South Carolina, Clemson's in-state rival in football and many other things, was another sticking point. The House plan gave the school $20 million yearly for science and math programs and an extra $5 million for its medical school. The Senate is only offering $10 million for this year.

House Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister and Smith aren't talking publicly about the impasse. And Peeler didn't give details Tuesday when he asked for the continuing resolution.

"I'm not here negotiating the appropriations bill in the well of the Senate, but I will say tension is at a fever pitch over at the House," Peeler said.

Smith said nothing of the deadlock as he checked his watch Wednesday and gaveled in the lonely session seconds before its scheduled noon start.

There was the daily prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

"We're in the roll call. All three members can record your presence if you choose," Smith said as three names lit up in green on the 124-member voting board.

Smith's slammed his gavel to end the session in less than three minutes. The session was needed for parliamentary reasons so Smith can call the House back whenever a deal is struck.

The lack of a deal may eat into planned vacations for legislators. A few weeks ago, Smith said he planned to be finished by June 1 so the part-time lawmakers could go home to their regular jobs. Long special sessions have cut into their downtime since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

Once lawmakers agree to any compromise, the governor gets a chance to review and can veto as many individual items as he wants. The General Assembly then can return to override the vetoes if they wish. That would appear to extend the special session into June.