South Carolina Senate approves $15.4B budget after debate on bathrooms and conference switching


COLUMBIA (AP) — The South Carolina Senate approved its budget Wednesday after debating items like requiring school children use the bathrooms of their sex assigned at birth and whether universities can spend state money to move to another athletic conference.
The $15.4 billion budget for next fiscal year raises salaries for state employees and teachers, sets aside more money to improve and repair roads and bridges and doubles a planned income tax cut to 0.2%.
It also sets up a showdown with the House over the next month or beyond as the House's $500 million property tax rebate is not in the Senate plan.
A group of three House members and three senators — likely including the leaders of each chamber's budget committee — is going to have to sort out the differences. Last year, there was a monthlong showdown over how much money should be given to a new veterinary school at Clemson University.
Late Wednesday, senators added a one-year provision to the budget requiring students use the bathroom of their sex assigned at birth and stay during overnight field trips in rooms of people of the same sex.
All the Republicans voting supported the proposal. Democrats said passing the idea over just a few minutes of debate instead of through a regular bill was dangerous.
"This will clearly subject our state to legal action. We are willfully wasting taxpayer dollars to defend against something that will be found unconstitutional," said Democratic Sen. Tameika Isaac Devine of Columbia
Senators also on Wednesday night took up what many see as a problem with charter school operators using state money for themselves instead of education, limiting to 2% the amount schools can use for administration.
"They are hiring employees of the schools they authorize as consultants," Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler of West Columbia said. "It is wrong what is going on. And they don't think this General Assembly is going to do anything."
Senators debated small parts of the spending plan for well over a dozen hours over two days as the main framework of the spending plan for the 2024-25 fiscal year was hammered out in the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month.
They approved an amendment prohibiting universities from spending state money on entry fees, exit fees or outside attorney expenses if they try to change conferences. Clemson University is suing the Atlantic Coast Conference — its home for sports for 71 years — challenging what the school calls the league's "exorbitant $140 million" exit fee.
Senators also required county libraries to provide detailed plans on how they will keep inappropriate material out of the hands of children or lose any state funding. Supporters said they won't punish libraries if a child sees adult material.
"They need to certify they have a plan. They aren't throwing this stuff on the shelf and saying have at it," said Republican Sen. Josh Kimbrell of Spartanburg, the amendment's sponsor.
Instead of $500 million in a property tax rebate, the Senate plan chooses to spend $100 million to knock the income tax rate most people pay in the state from 6.4% to 6.2% The state is in the middle of a five-year effort to cut its top income tax rate from 7% to 6% and this cuts the time to four years.
Senators would spend the rest of that money on roads and bridges, local water and sewer system repairs, and other items.
The $500 million comes from an account meant to provide property tax relief. Sales tax goes into the fund, and a boom in spending during and after the COVID-19 pandemic has left the account flush with cash.
The House budget suggested giving the money back as a property tax rebate. But county officials worry property tax bills will snap back next year and homeowners will be angry at them.
Another difference in the House and Senate budgets is how much of a raise is given to state employees. The Senate plan would give state employees making less than $50,000 a raise of $1,375 a year. Workers making more than that would get a 2.75% boost in pay. The House plan gives a $1,000 raise to workers making less than $66,667 and a 1.5% raise to those who make more.
Items both chambers agreed on including $200 million in teacher raises. Every teacher would get a pay bump and the minimum salary for a starting teacher would be increased to $47,000 a year. The budget also would allow teachers to get a yearly raise for each of their first 28 years instead of their first 23.
The debate ran so long that senators brought in dinner Wednesday night. After a 40-minute break to eat sandwiches, a few senators withdrew their amendments, including Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews of Walterboro, who had a weight loss drug proposal.
"Since we've eaten I would move to withdraw that," Matthews said to laughter.
"If I had known that, we would have eaten earlier," Republican Senate President Thomas Alexander of Walhalla responded.