- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Legislators have agreed to a roughly $7.5 billion spending plan that increases state employees’ pay by 3.25 percent, puts $30 million into replenishing sand on South Carolina’s beaches and provides local governments an additional $11 million.

Those were among the compromises Saturday by a six-member panel negotiating a final budget package for the fiscal year starting July 1. Both chambers are expected to pass it this week.

STATE WORKERS’ SALARIES

The cost-of-living raise, the largest for all employees since 2005, was a compromise between 2 percent in the House’s plan and the Senate’s 4 percent.

Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman said senators insisted that the budget begin catching up on pay, following several years without across-the-board raises. He also noted that the budget fully covers hikes in workers’ health insurance premiums, which cost the state about $27 million.

“I know that’s not in their paycheck, but least it’s not coming out of their paycheck,” said Leatherman, R-Florence.

But Carlton Washington, director of the State Employees Association, notes pension contributions are going up by 0.5 percent, meaning employees will essentially see a 2.75 percent pay increase.

“Legislators have been told by the experts that the wheels are coming off,” said Washington, who had sought a 5 percent increase. The budget “is going to deflate employees.”

A state-paid study released earlier this year showed state workers are underpaid compared with their counterparts in other states and local governments within South Carolina, plus they give up more of their paycheck for health care and retirement benefits than other public workers.

All teachers will see a 2 percent cost-of-living raise in addition to their step increase for experience, through 23 years in the classroom.

FIXING ROADS

The agreement intends for $200 million to be used to borrow $2 billion for highway construction over 10 years. But the borrowing depends on legislators passing a separate bill that also makes governance changes at the Department of Transportation. Three days remain in the regular legislative session.

The compromise also distributes an additional $50 million to counties for local roadwork. And it provides $49 million to cover the cost of repairs made to roadways following last October’s catastrophic flooding.

Leatherman called the intended borrowing a step toward fixing South Carolina’s crumbling infrastructure. Legislators still need to find a dedicated funding source for roadwork, he said.

“We have not fixed the roads,” he said. “This is the first step - a shot in the arm.”

The DOT has said it needs an additional $1.5 billion annually for three decades to bring the state’s highway system - the nation’s fourth largest - to good condition. But proposals that included a gas tax increase were defeated by legislators who argued for reform first.

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

The agreement puts an additional $10.6 million into the “local government fund,” bringing it to $223 million, or about $20 million less than the Senate proposed.

That money, distributed to counties and cities based on population, is supposed to cover expenses state government requires, including office space for agencies and legislators. Under a 1991 state law, it should be $90 million more. But legislators haven’t followed that law since 2008.

Budget items eliminated during negotiations include nearly $12 million that would have finished reimbursing counties’ clean-up expenses from the 2014 ice storm and $4.3 million to the Department of Commerce toward renovating a freight railroad in Horry County.

The $30 million for beach renourishment split the difference of the $20 million in the Senate’s plan and $40 million in the House’s.

MUSEUMS

Budget conferees agreed to spend $4 million on the planned International African-American Museum in Charleston, $3 million toward a new Medal of Honor museum - currently located on the USS Yorktown in Charleston Harbor - and $1 million on the Children’s Museum of the Upstate.

The budget spends nothing to display the Confederate flag removed from Statehouse grounds and sent last summer to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. An approved budget clause requires an analysis of available museum space in Charleston and a cost estimate for moving the state’s military history museum there.

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