The end of March was a bit less strenuous than past years, as my colleagues and I in the South Carolina House voted 112-6 to approve most of Gov. Henry McMaster’s budget that had been originally presented to the General Assembly in January.
The $9.8 billion budget, that we lawmakers have control over, is considered conservative because there are few increases to the general operations of most state agencies. However, many of my colleagues believe, as I do, that revenues could grow if the South Carolina Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) boosts revenue estimates next month from anticipated state taxes. Because of this the House plans to return to more budget hearings in late May or June.
Currently, South Carolina is in a good economic situation compared to many other states across the nation. Our unemployment rate is only a bit above 5% – which is just 1 percent off historic lows before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Much of our state’s good fortune is because of two factors: 1. We came into 2020 with a $1.8 billion revenue surplus because of past conservative behavior; and 2. When other states imposed extreme restrictions on their citizens because of the health crisis, our governor and the general assembly took a more reasonable approach that didn’t cripple our economy. Business continued for the most part, except at establishments and activities involving close personal contact and high risks of infections.
The 2021 plan includes a single line item that sets aside $500 million (Pandemic Stabilization Reserve Fund) to protect agencies from making mid-year cuts that could possibly be brought on by unanticipated pandemic or other future economic uncertainties. This “rainy day fund” expires June 30, 2022, and if nothing has gone awry, it can be used for something else or remain intact for other unforeseen needs such as a hurricane or flood.
Some highlights of the budget are as follows:
• Education: Even though revenue is being initially projected to be less than in recent years, teachers received a modest annual pay bump based on years of experience and education levels. This funding comes through an additional $73 million increase to the base student cost, money that school districts can use for teacher salaries, instructional materials and other things related to educating a child.
Also included is $5.5 million to ensure every public school has a nurse on premise, and $10 million to expand full-day public day kindergarten for 4 year olds.
Higher Education: Colleges and universities received $171 million, the bulk of which is for deferred maintenance. Technical colleges received $10 million for maintenance and capital expenses plus $33 million for workforce and other tech school scholarships.
• Broadband Expansion: An initial $30 million was approved for broadband expansion statewide – moving the needle forward so that high-speed internet access will be available to all – a weakness that was exposed by the pandemic.
• Tourism Promotion: Businesses in our area will be pleased to know that $20 million was allocated for additional tourism promotion due to the statewide drop in tourism revenue in 2020.
The budget now moves forward to the Senate before final approval.
Jeff Bradley is the representative for District 123 in the State House of Representatives.