- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s beleaguered pension would get $150 million and the state’s poorest districts would get $100 million for school construction, under a budget proposal advanced Thursday to the House floor.

The House Ways and Means Committee unanimously approved a roughly $8 billion spending plan for state taxes. The only pay raises would go to officers at the Corrections and Juvenile Justice departments, where turnover rates are high.

The pension contribution corresponds with identical bills in the House and Senate aimed at shoring up the system. It fully covers the bills’ required 2017-18 rate hike for state agencies funded primarily by state taxes and covers half the increase for other employers in the system, including colleges and local governments. The budget plan covers state employees’ rising health care premiums, but more money will come out of their paychecks for pension benefits.

Money to upgrade deteriorating K-12 schools would come three years after the state Supreme Court ordered legislators to improve opportunities for students in poor, rural districts.

Districts eligible to apply for some of $100 million include those that initially sued the state in 1993. So would any other district where at least 80 percent of students live in poverty. The Department of Education would rank projects of greatest need, and the State Board would approve funding.

The Legislature must report back to the Supreme Court by June 30 on its progress complying with the justices’ 2014 order to fix South Carolina’s education system. Issues cited in the ruling included decrepit buildings.

It’s unclear how much of the need $100 million would cover.

Last year, legislators put $1.5 million in the budget for a statewide review of facilities. That was supposed to be a precursor for borrowing up to $200 million annually for school construction. But a bill to authorize the borrowing died in the Senate. A report on the review has not yet been released.

Other spending in the 2017-18 budget proposal includes $82 million to cover Hurricane Matthew cleanup costs incurred by state agencies and local governments, $5 million to help replenish sand on coastal beaches and $1.3 million to cover the state’s costs for putting out the Pinnacle Mountain wildfire in Pickens County.

The budget provides an additional $5 million to the Department of Transportation by letting it keep gas tax money previously transferred to other agencies to fund gas pump inspections, welcome centers and DOT auditors.

“I want as much money produced at the pump to go to roads and not other expenses,” said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who’s led the chamber’s efforts to craft a road-funding plan.

The committee’s move to cover those costs through the state’s general fund comes a week after Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters he remains unconvinced that a gas tax hike is necessary to fix the state’s crumbling roadways.

“The gas money is going to other things,” McMaster said. “It doesn’t go to the roads. Maybe that’s something we can adjust. … I’m hoping there will be enough funds for us to do what’s necessary without raising the taxes.”

Next week the House is expected to debate a bill that would raise an additional $600 million for roadwork annually once fully phased in over five years. More than 60 percent of that would come from raising the state’s gas tax by 10 cents, to 26 cents per gallon. Simrill noted Thursday none of that money would be siphoned off for other expenses.

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