- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - State economic forecasters foresee no extra money coming into South Carolina’s primary coffers, giving legislators less to haggle over as the chambers negotiate a final spending plan.

The Board of Economic Advisors made no changes Thursday to its general fund revenue forecast for this fiscal year or next.

Collections are running both above and below estimates, depending on the tax, but “it looks like we’ll end up close to the estimate,” said Frank Rainwater, director of the state’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.

House and Senate leaders will attempt over the next two weeks to agree to a roughly $7.5 billion state spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. By law, the regular session ends June 2.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White said the lack of additional money should make negotiations “go a little faster.”

The board’s vote puts into question millions of dollars of spending the Senate added during floor debate earlier this month on the chance collections would exceed prior estimates. The board’s May update often gives legislators additional money to spend. Last year, the board essentially handed legislators an additional $300 million in discretionary spending for the 2015-16 budget. Much of that went toward roadwork.

Items in the Senate’s $40 million supplemental list that likely will be covered elsewhere in the budget include nearly $12 million to finish reimbursing counties’ clean-up expenses from the 2014 ice storm and $4.3 million to the Department of Commerce toward renovating a freight railroad in Horry County. The House amended its budget plan Thursday to include that spending.

But various local projects on that supplemental list, including fire departments, museums and community centers - already opposed by some lawmakers as local pork - could get cut.

Advisers did increase estimates for lottery profits by $35 million - $20 million this fiscal year and $15 million in 2016-17 - partly due to a recent flurry of Powerball ticket sales. However, state law limits that spending to college scholarships and education programs.

On Thursday, the House voted to set aside excess lottery profits to pay for additional scholarships expected to be awarded under the state’s 10-point grading scale, which takes effect Aug. 1. Currently, an A is 93 to 100, and a B is 85 to 92.

The change, approved last month by the State Board of Education, could mean roughly 13,000 additional students earning lottery-backed scholarships annually by 2023.

Grades issued before Aug. 1 won’t be recalculated, meaning rising seniors’ GPA will benefit from only one year under the new scale. That phases in the rising number of students earning a B average and qualifying for the state’s HOPE, LIFE and Palmetto Fellows scholarships.

“The money’s there,” White, R-Anderson, said of the excess. “Let’s go ahead and set it aside for that growth and not spend it somewhere else.”

Using current eligibility requirements, the change could result in an additional $14.5 million in scholarships awarded to students by 2020, when next year’s freshman class graduates - the first under a 10-point scale for four years. The full cost would reach $50 million more yearly in 2023, according to the state Commission on Higher Education.

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