- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina Senate on Wednesday began discussing how the state should spend its nearly $9 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The plan, approved earlier this month by the Senate Finance Committee, allows for nearly $1 billion more in spending than the last budget. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman of Florence said finalizing the budget will require both negotiation and friendly debate.

“This will be a work of compromise. Please keep that in mind as we go through the budget,” Leatherman said. “Let us debate this budget in a spirit of congeniality.”

Senators spent the majority of Wednesday introducing new proposals to the budget.

Lawmakers have said raising the pay of state workers is a priority and have allocated $159 million to give all teachers a 4% pay raise and to increase the minimum starting teacher salary from $32,000 to $35,000.

Republican Sen. Greg Hembree introduced a proposal that would provide a 5% pay raise for teachers and increase the minimum starting teacher pay to $33,600. Lawmakers in opposition said attracting and retaining teachers was the purpose of the budgetary proposal and said reducing the starting pay from what was outlined in the Senate’s current plan would not help those efforts.

The Senate voted to reject the amendment, 30-15.

Several hours into budget discussions, the debate turned to abortion.

Republican Sen. Richard Cash introduced a proposal that would ban the state employee health care system from providing coverage for abortions in cases of rape or incest. The proposal would only provide an exception in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. Current law allows for the state insurance plan to provide coverage for all three cases. Some Senate Democrats said the proposal was inherently unfair to crime victims and infringes on the constitutional rights of women.

The Senate voted 24-21 to reject the proposal.

One lawmaker introduced language in the budget to further legislative action on offshore drilling. The provision, authored by Sen. Chip Campsen of Charleston, would ban onshore infrastructure associated with drilling and seismic testing for oil and gas off the South Carolina coast.

The Republican lawmaker said offshore drilling does not make economic sense and could threaten the future of tourism in the state. The provision would prevent the Department of Health and Environmental Control or local government entities from using any funds to approve licenses or permits associated with offshore drilling for oil or gas or for seismic testing.

Lawmakers voted in favor of the proposal, 40-4.

Other provisions in the Senate’s budget would pay $25 million for South Carolina farmers hurt by flooding caused by Hurricanes Michael and Florence last year. Additionally, $40 million would go toward purchasing a new statewide voting system; $10 million would be spent to improve prison safety; and nearly $44 million would be spent to freeze college tuition for in-state students.

The budget proposal allocates $41 million to cover a 2% cost of living pay raise for state workers as well as $50 million to cover state employee health and dental insurance increases. State employees who make $70,000 or less a year also would get a $600 bonus. The one-time bonus would cost $20 million, according to the Senate committee’s plan.

The state expects to receive $64 million in income tax paid by the winner of October’s $878 million Mega Millions jackpot. The Senate plan calls for using that money - and an additional $6 million - to pay for sending $50 rebate checks to the address on every South Carolina income tax form.

Leatherman told senators to expect a few days of long debate to pass the budget before the end of the week.

Senators will resume budget debates Thursday morning.

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