- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Republicans say K-12 public schools are a big winner in the House budget plan approved late Tuesday, but Democrats criticized the plan as still not meeting the state’s obligation to education.

The House voted 115-2 in favor of a $7 billion spending plan for state taxes and 105-4 on a separate bill that spends $117 million from this year’s rainy-day fund. When including all revenue sources - such as federal money, fees, fines, lottery profits and college tuition - the total state budget for Fiscal Year 2015, which starts July 1, would be $24 billion, up from Fiscal Year 2014’s $22.5 billion.

Perfunctory votes on Wednesday will send the budget package to the Senate.

The spending plan adds more than $180 million to K-12 education in 2014-15, as well as $12 million extra toward covering district employees’ rising health insurance premiums.

But Rep. James Smith said that is still far from where the funding should be.

He proposed increasing the “base student cost” to $2,742 per student under a formula, established by a 1977 state law, that’s adjusted annually for inflation. But that would cost $537 million. The House proposal provides $622 less per student through that key funding mechanism.

Smith, D-Columbia, recognized his proposal was doomed. Even he disagreed with where the money would come from to pay for the amendment: from employees’ pay, health insurance and capital reserves. But he said he wanted to point out the shortfall.

“We continue to ignore our own standard,” he said. “We could meet this obligation if we work together to do it.”

His amendment was killed on a voice vote.

Rep. Kenny Bingham said it is unrealistic to expect the Legislature to keep up with annual adjustments on a 37-year-old funding formula.

“He gets to make a point. I have to worry about funding,” said Bingham, R-Cayce, whose Ways and Means Subcommittee writes the K-12 budget. “We don’t have the money.”

Legislators have long argued for a complete revamping of the state’s decades-old funding formulas but have been unable to agree on how. Another key funding mechanism stems from a 1984 law.

Although the formulas remain, the House did adopt Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget recommendations intended to simplify them and provide more to certain students. That includes spending 20 percent more on children who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, to target funding to the neediest schools, and 20 percent more on children whose primary language isn’t English.

The weighting changes mean roughly $100 million more will be spent on children who live in poverty. Other additions in the spending plan include $30 million to hire additional reading coaches in elementary schools and $29 million to improve Internet and wireless capabilities in schools.

Democrats have been pushing to add a poverty weighting for years, but Republicans who control the Legislature had balked at the idea.

Also on Tuesday, House Republicans again rejected Democrats’ attempt to expand eligibility for Medicaid, as called for under the federal health overhaul. Republicans did not budge from their repeated refusal last year. The amendment was defeated 75-41.

Other proposals that failed during the budget debate included efforts to increase the gas tax to pay for road construction - an idea Gov. Nikki Haley has promised to veto - and remove the lieutenant governor’s security detail.

Democratic Rep. Bakari Sellers of Denmark, who’s running for the job, unsuccessfully argued that assigning state law enforcement to protect the lieutenant governor is a waste of taxpayer money.

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