- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 4, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The Legislature’s compromise on its budget plan for 2014-15 would expand full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds, maintain aid to local governments and provide state workers a 2 percent pay raise.

The House voted 85-28 Wednesday on a compromise worked out between the chairmen of the House and Senate’s budget-writing committees. The Senate followed by a vote of 34-10, allowing the $7 billion spending plan for state taxes to go to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk before the legislative session ends Thursday.

The Senate wanted to expand the state program for at-risk 4-year-olds to 14 additional districts. The compromise expands access to 10 instead, for a total of 61 districts. That was a key difference in the chambers’ spending plans, as the House proposal passed in March made no changes to the kindergarten program.

“That’s some of the best money the state will ever spend,” said Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

The compromise maintains the “local government fund” at $213 million, an amount unchanged since 2012-13. That money is distributed based on population, with 83 percent going to counties and 17 percent to cities. Under state law, it should be at nearly $290 million. But legislators have not followed that law since 2008.

The House had proposed giving state employees a 1.5 percent cost-of-living salary boost. The Senate plan added a $300 bonus to that.

The compromise “did away with the bonus and made it 2 percent across-the-board,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson.

Legislators also get a pay raise. Unless they choose to opt out, they’ll get an additional $1,000 monthly for in-district expenses, doubling the stipend that hasn’t changed since 1995 to $24,000 yearly.

“We certainly won’t force it on anyone,” Leatherman told his colleagues. “If you decide you don’t want it, all you do is let the clerk know.”

The spending plan provides an additional $180 million for K-12 schools, expanding on an education plan Gov. Nikki Haley unveiled in January. It gives more to students in poor, rural districts without taking money away from other districts that are able to better equip classrooms through local property taxes. Changes include a first-ever weighting for poverty, which translates to an additional $97 million spent on students who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals. It would also spend 20 percent more on children whose primary language isn’t English and therefore need one-on-one help.

Other elements adopted from Haley’s budget proposal include $30 million to hire additional reading coaches in elementary schools and $29 million to improve Internet and wireless capabilities in schools.

The Legislature’s final plan adopts the Senate’s version for censuring two public colleges for assigning books on homosexuality. The College of Charleston must spend at least $52,000 and the University of South Carolina Upstate must spend $17,000 on teaching the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. Those amounts correspond with what the colleges say they spent on books dealing with homosexuality that were assigned for a freshmen reading program. The House version cut those amounts from the colleges’ budgets.

The compromise also provides:

-$57 million to cover state employees’ health insurance premium increases.

-$18 million for new school buses.

-$15 million for initiatives at technical colleges.

-$10 million for a consultant’s recommended cyber-security upgrades.

-$5 million for an African-American History Museum in Charleston.

-$5 million toward dredging the port at Georgetown to 27 feet.

The Legislature’s total budget package for the fiscal year starting July 1 is $24 billion, up from $22.5 billion this year. But that encompasses all revenue sources, including federal money, fees, fines, lottery profits, grants and tuition at South Carolina’s 33 public colleges and technical schools.

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