- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Senators passed South Carolina’s spending plan for $7 billion in state taxes Thursday after they were able to reach a deal that will give most state employees an $800 bonus.

The sticking point over the past two days had been how to spend additional money coming into the budget.

After a two-hour recess Thursday afternoon, senators announced a budget that includes $23.5 million for bonuses for state employees who make less than $100,000. The employees aren’t getting any across-the-board cost-of-living adjustments in this year’s spending plan, although the state is covering increases in their health care premiums.

“The goal is for them to see it around Christmastime,” said the proposal’s sponsor, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden.

A total of $4.1 million will go to counties that suffered heavy damage during the 2014 ice storm, which coated trees and power lines from Aiken to Orangeburg to Marion.

Nearly all the rest of the money left over will then be sent to counties to pay for state roads. Exactly how much won’t be known until the Board of Economic Advisors meets on May 21 to discuss state revenue collections and the comptroller general closes the books at the end of the fiscal year in June. Estimates among senators ranged from nothing to more than $200 million.

Thursday’s 42-3 vote was final approval of the plan. The Senate gave tentative approval to the budget Monday, but may still have work to do on the spending plan. They have not addressed the fate of a $236 million borrowing package, which would send $15 million to National Guard armories while the rest would be split among all 33 public colleges and technical schools.

Senate President Hugh Leatherman didn’t give a timetable on when the bond vote might come. But the passage of an amendment earlier this week to create a study committee that would determine what projects the state should borrow money for likely indicates that the two-thirds vote required to pass the bond bill isn’t there.

After years of not spending enough on higher education and the armories, Sheheen said passing the bond bill while interest rates are historically low is vital. But he isn’t sure it can happen.

“It’s going to be very close. I think right now there is probably a four-vote margin people are jockeying and fighting about,” Sheheen said.

After reaching the big compromise, senators approved an 11 percent raise for state judges on a 23-19 vote, despite Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler’s harsh criticism of the proposal. He said he talked to state employees all week who guard the Statehouse or clean its bathrooms.

“Not one of them - not one asked for me to vote for their $800 bonus. But the chief justice of this state was outside lobbying for a pay raise,” the Gaffney Republican said.

Other items in the budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $8.5 million to hire 262 employees at the Department of Social Services. Most of those new hires would be caseworkers and assistants. It also provides pay raises of up to 15 percent for DSS employees, matching the budget request the agency’s new director made in March to try to stop turnover in the high-stress jobs.

The spending plan has $3.4 million for body cameras for police officers. It also puts about $100 million more into K-12 schools, sets aside $29 million for new school buses and spends $40 million for textbooks.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP

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