During the five-month session, there’s a lot the General Assembly works on. While many things we do are crucial, such as electing judges, confirming gubernatorial appointments and passing laws, the most important piece of legislation we take up every year is the state budget.
Having been appointed to the Ways and Means Committee back in December, I am now able to be involved in this process more directly than in years past. As discussed in previous editorials, this process often starts before the Legislature officially begins session at the end of January and usually runs through most of our session. The House will pass its version of the budget, and send it over to the Senate, which is working on its version of the budget. Here are the major points we tackled with our first draft of the budget that has passed the House.
Income tax cut
The first thing off the top before we start budgeting is our promised income tax cut. This year, the House budget will cut the state rate down from 6.5% to 6.4%. The rate will continue to be lowered until it reaches 6%, as long as revenues continue to increase. This cut is a part of a larger tax cut plan we passed last year that I was proud to co-sponsor. This will put $96 million back into the pockets of our hard-working taxpayers. Once fully implemented, this tax cut will save $1 billion annually for our taxpayers.
Teacher pay increase
This budget will provide a $2,500 pay increase in the teacher salary schedule, raising the starting pay to $42,500 and an average salary of $55,104. This represents a $10,000 increase in both since the 2018-19 school year. This budget also increases the teacher supply check from $300 to $350. It also provides funding for districts to continue to expand school resource officers if they can find officers willing to serve. While many school districts supplement these salaries and supply allowances from their own revenues, they are only required to keep up with the statewide minimum. As state legislators have no control over these supplements, I encourage teachers to speak with their school boards about maximizing their possible salary increase if the district pays above the state minimum.
More road funding
More roads are set to be repaved in Lancaster and Kershaw counties this year than any year before. This budget sets aside an additional $450 million for road and bridge improvements across South Carolina on top of our normal work.
Of that, $250 million will be set aside for County Transportation Committees, legislatively appointed county boards of volunteer citizens tasked with overseeing the allocation of a portion of state gas tax revenues toward the maintenance and resurfacing of secondary and rural roads in each county. This will be the second year in a row we have proposed quadrupling the annual amount of money these organizations receive, allowing them to start trying to catch up with years of underfunded road repair work.
The House budget also proposes providing $200 million for the S.C. Department of Trnsportation to expedite its bridge replacement plan, which will speed up these critical needs.
College tuition freeze
For the fifth year in a row, we are freezing the cost of tuition at our universities and technical college systems. Making sure it is affordable for people to get the education and training they need to fill the jobs of tomorrow is important for our future workforce needs. Locally, this means that the University of South Carolina Lancaster, which is located in District 45, will receive $5 million for maintenance and renovations, along with $1.6 million in recurring funds to help fund its day-to-day operations.
Our state Medicaid match required by Washington continues to increase at an alarming rate. Just the annual increase to fund our state’s match is $159 million, with no end in sight. This is almost two times the amount it cost to freeze college tuition statewide.
These increases continue to eat large holes in our state’s budget. I often say if you want to know where funds for further tax cuts, teacher pay raises, and state employee pay raises are going, you can find them in our increasing state Medicaid match.
The decision years ago to participate in this, while well-intentioned, created costly long-term burdens for our state’s taxpayers, and Washington ties our hands to restrain the runaway growth of this program. I would support more freedom for our state in how these dollars are spent.
Planning ahead is one of the most important things we can do as a state, but something the government doesn’t always do well, unfortunately. Last year, I supported the constitutional amendment that voters approved to increase our required reserves. This budget fulfills that vote by adding $139 million to our general reserve fund and $180 million to our capital reserve fund. Our state will now have over $1 billion in reserves for future emergencies, should they arise.
Law enforcement pay increases
This budget continues to show that South Carolina backs the blue. We are investing in our law enforcement officers by providing a 15% pay increase for Class 1 officers. We are also increasing our state correctional Class 2 officers pay by 6.5%. This will mean that all state law enforcement officers will now make more than $50,000 a year starting out and all correction officers will make at least $40,000 a year starting out. While we need to do more, this is a step in the right direction.
Employee benefit increase
The rising cost of inflation is affecting the state in the same way it does private businesses. To compete and keep our workforce, the House budget will provide funding to avoid increasing state employee contributions for pension and health insurance. This is a massive investment aimed at keeping state employees. We are also providing a $2,500 pay increase for any employees making less than $83,000 a year and a 3% raise for any making more than that.
An issue that I care about deeply is the conservation of our state land. In areas like ours that are growing, it is important that we plan ahead to preserve as much of our natural beauty as possible. We are investing $58 million in one-time money to put land into the state conservation bank, along with new state parks for our citizens to enjoy.
This is only the first step in our budget process. Now the state Senate will pass its version of the budget and then both bodies will work together to produce a final budget to send to Gov. Henry McMaster later in the spring. Stay tuned for updates as this process continues.
Republican Brandon Newton represents District 45 in the S.C. House of Representatives.