State Politics

SC budget forecasters may have good news for lawmakers in 2020

South Carolina’s budget forecasters may have good news in store this week, just ahead of lawmakers’ return to Columbia in January.

That good news could affect South Carolinians in all walks of life, from K-12 teachers to inmates and guards in S.C. prisons.

When South Carolina’s 170 lawmakers return to the State House next year, they likely could see at least $1 billion more in new money to spend, an amount that could rival or surpass what economists predicted last year.

That is on top of a $350 million surplus the state’s Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom reported in August.

The state’s budget forecasters meet Friday, where officials are expected to hear confirmation of the flush of new money. That would bring the state’s total general fund budget to more than $9.3 billion, more than last year’s mark.

Lawmakers have waited months for these numbers so they can begin negotiating how to spend it when they return to Columbia.

“It’s hard to prioritize when you don’t know how much money would be available,” S.C. House budget chief Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said Thursday.

But in interviews with lawmakers, leaders’ priorities are starting to become clear.

First, teachers.

“Education is always our priority (in the House Democratic Caucus),” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who sits on the state’s powerful House Ways and Means Committee. “We haven’t met it. Keeping our promise to teachers is the first on our list.”

The state spent close to $160 million this year to raise the starting salary for teachers and bump up teachers pay, a few months after 10,000 teachers and their supporters marched on the State House to demand better working conditions.

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And as the Senate readies to debate school reform, lawmakers said the state’s more than 52,000 teachers need to remain a priority.

“We made a commitment to teachers that we were going to raise their salary and this was going to be a multi-year process,” said Smith, pointing to House Speaker Jay Lucas’ plan to raise S.C. teacher pay to the national average — about $60,000 — in the span of five years. “I foresee that still being a priority of the House as we move forward.”

Second, legislators want to take a closer look at the state’s prison system — one of state’s largest agencies with an ever-growing budget as costs continue to rise.

“Despite the best efforts of the director and his staff who are trying to improve conditions, one thing we need to concentrate on is the facilities and deferred maintenance,” Smith said. “It’s been brought to our attention for years and the General Assembly has not acted.”

Now, more than a year after a deadly prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution, the agency is still in need of more cameras, vests and radios to help its corrections officers. It also needs systems upgrades and replacements for its slider doors inside the prisons.

This past budget cycle, lawmakers gave the agency $10 million for service and equipment upgrades.

But the agency needs more, lawmakers said.

“We’ve got roofs that need repairs; that’s critical,” said director Bryan Stirling.

Another need? Heating and air units, Stirling added.

“It’s tied to safety,” Stirling said. “That effects the security and that effects the temperature of the population. ... Just like with food. If they’re satisfied with what they are getting, it makes it safer for our staff and our folks that are incarcerated.”

Those requests and hundreds more will become public this month. Some will make it into Republican Gov. Henry McMaster’s budget proposal.

And despite that all 170 legislators are up for re-election in 2020, state leaders say politics won’t get in the way.

“Whether it’s an election year or not, it shouldn’t make a difference,” said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee. “We ought not to be making decisions like that. We shouldn’t be thinking about it.”

But Smith conceded an election year “always changes the calculus.”

“Members running for re-election want to prioritize what they feel is important and what could help in their election,” Smith said. “By and large, my experience has been a number of election cycles that the General Assembly tries its best by the citizens of this state.”

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.