- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The House budget-writing committee wants to give South Carolina state employees a slight raise and cover their rising health insurance premiums, but their out-of-pocket costs would increase again.

The Ways and Means Committee tentatively approved on Wednesday a 1.5 percent cost-of-living raise for state employees for the fiscal year starting July 1. Members also agreed to spend an additional $57 million to cover higher premiums for employees of state agencies and school districts.

Rep. Jim Merrill said his subcommittee considered giving a higher raise and requiring employees and retirees to pay for their premium increases.

“We think it’s better to split the two,” said Merrill, R-Charleston. “We could’ve put it all on the backs of state employees and maybe give a 2 percent raise, but that wouldn’t be the responsible thing to do.”

However, the plan would require employees to pay slightly more for their deductibles and co-payments. Individuals’ deductibles would rise by $30, to $450, while family coverage deductibles would increase by $60, to $900. Copayments would increase by $1 for doctor visits, to $13; and by $10 for emergency room care, to $160. Outpatient hospital care co-pays would increase from $90 to $97. Some pharmacy copayments would not change, while others would rise by between $3 and $12.

Those increases, which would take effect Jan. 1, would follow a 20 percent increase in employees’ co-payments this year.

The additional money legislators are designating for pay and premium raises cover employees funded through the state’s general fund. The changes would also apply to employees at agencies and public colleges whose salaries are funded through federal money, tuition, fees or other funds. But those agencies must find the money in their own budgets.

In the K-12 education section of the budget, the committee chose to follow Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to improve education by focusing on poor, rural school districts.

Haley announced last month that her spending plan for 2014-15 provided K-12 public schools an additional $177 million, for what she called the first of a multiyear investment.

That included $97 million on children living in poverty, $30 million on reading coaches in elementary schools, and $29 million on technology improvements. The plan adopted by Ways and Means would fully cover the cost of a reading coach for several hundred elementary schools where a substantial number of students score poorly on standardized reading tests. The coaches would be partially funded at others. Technology money would be distributed to districts based on their poverty rating.

“It’s a direction we need to go,” Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, said about the funding changes.

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