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Pandemic puts South Carolina lawmakers in a budget quandary

Published: Sep. 2, 2020 at 6:50 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - Under a budget plan passed before the COVID-19 pandemic by House members, South Carolina state employees were in line for merit-based raises.

Carlton Washington, the executive director for the South Carolina State Employees Association, said they’ll be asking lawmakers to include a raise in any new budget plan they put together later this month.

“Those are the employees who need it most because 75% of them make below $40,000 a year,” he said.

South Carolina lawmakers now have a better idea of how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the state’s economy. The state is still expected to have a surplus, but some lawmakers aren’t sold just yet on crafting a new budget plan.

The state is currently operating under the same spending levels as last fiscal year. Lawmakers passed a continuing resolution to keep state government funded until a new budget is passed.

This week, the South Carolina Board of Economic Advisors finalized revenue numbers. It shows the state has about an $800 million surplus but only about $86 million in recurring yearly money. Before the pandemic, South Carolina was expected to have more than $900 million in that yearly money. They said this shows the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the state.

House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Murrell Smith (R-Sumter) said he is cautious about the state’s economic future. He said he’s leaning towards a wait-and-see approach for a new budget plan.

According to Smith, the General Assembly learned some tough lessons during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. He said he wants to avoid any budget cuts.

He would like to see what long-term impacts, if any, the pandemic has on the state’s economy and revenue streams. Gov. Henry McMaster is also in support of that and asked cabinet agency heads to hold off on any additional budget requests.

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee met for the first time to discuss the 2020-21 budget. They met via Zoom.

“We got our work cut out for us to take care of what needs to be done,” said Chairman Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence).

The committee will continue to meet to work on a budget plan, Leatherman told committee members Tuesday.

Smith said if no new budget is passed this September, state employees and teachers will not be put on the back burner.

“When this economy is back up and revenues are flowing into the state like we project, those will be our first priorities like they were our first priorities in March,” he said.

Washington said he hopes lawmakers will also address hazard pay for state employees.

The General Assembly is expected to hold a special two-week session in the middle of September to discuss a potential spending plan and other issues.

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