- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 5, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina Senate’s budget debate has turned into a fight about road construction and borrowing.

The Senate continued discussions Tuesday on its $7 billion spending plan for state taxes. But debate centered on the fate of other bills.

The Senate passed an amendment creating a study committee to determine borrowing needs. That further puts in question the fate of a $236 million borrowing package, which requires two-thirds approval. Of that, $15 million would go to National Guard armories while the rest would be split among all 33 public colleges and technical schools.

Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said the package doesn’t have enough support anyway and his approach is better. The committee - made up of six legislators and three appointees of Gov. Nikki Haley - would report their findings by year’s end. Haley worked to kill a larger borrowing proposal by House leadership and is trying to scuttle the Senate package too.

“There’s still political blood in the carpet over there,” Peeler said of the House debate. “This does not negate the need for it. It may bring votes to it. This is a more reasonable approach for our bonding needs.”

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said the state needs to borrow while interest rates remain near historic lows. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, noted legislators tend to create a study committee if they don’t want to deal with an issue.

“I know the old ‘study committee death alternative,’ which is nothing happens,” he said.

Senators postponed voting on an amendment regarding who selects the Department of Transportation director. Opponents worry its passage would guarantee that the chamber won’t pass a road-funding plan this year.

Without legislation, a 2007 state law that made DOT a Cabinet agency would sunset, meaning the agency would again be controlled by a legislatively appointed commission. The director is now appointed by the governor but also reports to the commission. Haley wants full control of the agency. A budget clause proposed by Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin would postpone any change for one year.

“I hope this body will send a message: We’re not going to step backward and … revert to what I consider a highly politicized way of doing business,” said Martin, R-Pickens.

Although he said he hopes the Legislature can still pass a road-funding bill, he said, “I don’t know if it’s possible.”

Haley has pledged to veto both what the House passed and a proposal that’s on the Senate calendar for debate.

There could be complete gridlock Wednesday.

Sen. Lee Bright pledges to filibuster a proposal to give state employees a one-time bonus of $900.

Bright took the podium after senators refused, on a 15-30 vote, to kill Sheheen’s amendment to spend $25.5 million of expected surplus on the bonuses. The budget contains no across-the-board cost-of-living increase.

But Bright said any money collected above this year’s revenue expectations should be put toward roads.

“There’s no way I’m going to let a pay raise go through,” said Bright, R-Roebuck.

The DOT has said it needs an additional $1.5 billion yearly to bring roads to good condition.

Bright is among Republicans who oppose raising taxes to fund roads. A Senate Finance proposal would raise $800 million for roadwork through increases in the gas tax and sales taxes on vehicles, as well as fees on licenses and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Bright was among Republican senators last week who refused to give the bill special debate status. Just 14 days remain in the legislative session.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ray Cleary, said he’s still hopeful the Senate will address roads.

“We know it’s the No. 1 priority, and at the end of the day, it will be the Senate to blame,” said Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet.

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