Something's afoot in the South Carolina Statehouse. Here's what you need to know

Devyani Chhetri covers the House and Senate at the South Carolina State House Monday, June 21, 2021.
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Welcome to the debut edition of the Upstate Capitol Report!

This newsletter was supposed to come out yesterday on a day spent remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but alas, technology continues to challenge some of my best laid plans. Moving forward, you can expect this newsletter in your inbox at 7 a.m. each Monday.

That being said, as we emerge out of a snowstorm, bundled up in at least three layers of clothing and a shovel to clear the yard, I hope you are all safe and well.

A lot happened the past week, so the newsletter is on the longer side... (don't blame me, I was excited). Let’s just dive right into it.

Money, COVID-19 and schools

Last week started with Gov. Henry McMaster unveiling his budget recommendations for the upcoming fiscal year. This is important because a budget will tell you about the state's priorities and also foreshadows campaign promises during an election year.

Lucky for you all, I spent five days last week in New York to learn how to become the toughest, baddest fiscal reporter. (You're very welcome)

Here's a few things that caught my attention:

1) McMaster proposed increasing the state's rainy day fund by adding $500 million to it to ensure that the fund's balance is equivalent to no less than 10% of the state's budget.

That's a lot of money and was expected after being confronted with another financial downturn.

Rep. West Cox, R-Greenville, mentioned that he was advocating for a bill that intends to fatten up the rainy day fund, which is in line with what McMaster is proposing.

Considering the emergency payments doled out to fight COVID-19, a good rainy day fund economically makes sense. But with South Carolina's frugal, minimalistic lifestyle that would also mean cutting costs for other programs.

What's the Legislature going to do? We'll see.

2) Speaking of cutting costs, McMaster also suggested cutting the personal income tax by 1% over five years for all personal income tax brackets. Business groups in the state have been lobbying for this for years and national experts expected states to be involved in some version of tax cuts.

However, it may just pass this year.

Generally, tax experts tend to be wary of messaging around tax cuts, especially now when states are experiencing an "artificial high." In South Carolina, which has the 39th most unequal tax policy in the country, lower-income families pay the biggest share of sales and property taxes. So even if they're paying lower income taxes, they are paying more dollars either way.

3) McMaster proposed $20 million for "educational savings accounts", depending on how and when lawmakers act on it.

Lawmakers want to give parents money for enrolling their children in a private school or paying for services like therapy and counseling. State lawmakers have proposed spending $3 billion over five years to achieve that. That's the size of South Carolina's entire annual education budget.

Teachers and public school advocates who attended a meeting in the Statehouse last week criticized this proposition as they fear it would take money out of public school schools, something that already happens because of South Carolina's education funding model. Did you know Greenville County school district lost revenue of nearly $44 million in 2020 because of all the tax agreements to spur the economy?

A Senate meeting is planned for Wednesday, January 19, at 10:30 a.m. in the Gressette Building room 207.

Nevertheless

It's a land of opportunity because South Carolina, like most states, is sitting on a trove of U.S. dollars. A trove!

There's over $2 billion of COVID-19 federal funding and an extra $3 billion in state coffers because of the General Assembly's decision in 2020 to use the 2019 budget and limit spending. But to everyone's surprise and contrary to what happened in the 2008 financial crisis, the market in the U.S. bounced back extremely fast — thanks to all the home decorations and furniture people bought to jazz up their homes and home offices.

(This is exactly the right moment to play this song.)

Anyway, apart from the funds the state received, school districts too received direct federal funding to survive the pandemic.

But some parents in the Upstate are pretty upset by Greenville County school district's COVID-19 response. One parent I spoke with asked an extremely important question, which really begs more focus considering the public health nightmare we're living in: have we been more reactive than proactive?

Read here: 'Reactive than proactive': Upstate SC families question state, local response to COVID-19

All of the extra money means that the state is essentially sitting on over $7 billion besides its annual state budget. And there's more of it expected after the $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal a couple of months ago, which seven of the South Carolina congressional delegation's nine members voted against (Only Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. James Clyburn voted for it).

Some budget highlights that my colleagues and I wrote about last week:

  1. Spending $1.26 billion to speed up the start of road and bridge projects statewide, including the widening of Interstate 85 in Greenville and Spartanburg counties.

  2. Reworking an education funding model that was proposed in 1977 and has since then remained unchanged. A key part of that is increasing minimum teacher salaries across the state to $38,000 per year. What's the catch? School districts in Greenville, Anderson and Spartanburg counties that already pay over the proposed minimum wage don't have to necessarily increase teacher salaries.

It's really up to them how they intend to use the money.

Some teachers have said that they don't believe it's helping people who need at least $3,000 more to live comfortably in a housing market like Greenville.

More: McMaster proposes education funding overhaul, increased staff pay, improve transparency

More: McMaster proposes $1.26 billion to accelerate 'high priority' roads, including I-85 widening

A bill that would have let doctors deny care to the LGBTQ community

Sen. Josh Kimbrell from Spartanburg introduced a bill that would give medical practitioners the right to decide the kind of patients they wanted to serve. The operative word in the bill is "conscience" and when you say conscience, you're generally going down the "morality" road in policy-making. Obviously, LGBTQ advocates raised a red flag and said that this would allow medical discrimination.

The bill didn't go past the subcommittee because Upstate senators feared the language could be used by medical professionals to deny medical services to people who are refusing the vaccine.

Redistricting

It's still happening and is likely to affect the upcoming election filings in March. The House Congressional map has invited criticism for "packing" or concentrating the majority of Black voters in Clyburn's district. The new map carved out a big chunk of Charleston from Congressional District 1, which is set up to host an incredibly competitive race between incumbent Rep. Nancy Mace and contender, Dr. Annie Andrews.

On the other hand, the senate judiciary committee has the option to pick either the House's version or another map, which voting advocates much prefer.

The senate judiciary committee will meet on Tuesday to advance the bill.

Power changes in the Upstate

Speaking of voting and elections, two veteran Greenville lawmakers, Rep. Garry Smith and Rep. Tommy Stringer have said that they won't be running for re-election. That's two big ranking lawmakers in a General Assembly that really reminds you that seniority is key in lawmaking.

The new voting districts on the state level also mean that Rep. Neal Collins from the Pickens county delegation and Rep. Jay West from Anderson will join Greenville county delegation meetings after the recent shuffle. Rep. Rita Allison from Spartanburg is no longer part of the Greenville County delegation.

So here's what you need to know for the upcoming week:

Jan. 18, Tuesday: The senate was supposed to meet today to discuss the voting maps for the Congressional districts. That meeting was canceled because of the weather.

Jan. 19, Wednesday: At 10 a.m., a few lawmakers will be meeting with conservation advocates to discuss issues like water contamination in drinking water (presented by Megan Chase from the Upstate Forever), protected lands and funding for an environmental and natural resource agency. I'm particularly interested in this meeting because of how overworked DHEC is and whether these policy recommendations address South Carolina's absent climate policy.

At 10:30 a.m., Senators will be meeting again to discuss the controversial "Education Savings Account" bill (S.935). This meeting will not be streamed. But I'll be there so you'll know how it goes.

At 11 a.m., House lawmakers will be meeting to discuss a combination of bills that direct the state to pay the costs of a driver's education program approved by the department, the driver's license fee and motor vehicle insurance, up to a maximum limit of $2,000 per child, per 12-month period, for a child 15 to 18 years of age in the care of the SC Department of Social Services.

Jan. 19 is also the day of the State of the State where Gov. Henry McMaster will be giving a long review of a lot of what we've written about in the past few months and most importantly, what's to come.

Jan. 20, Thursday: At 9:30 a.m., Senators will be discussing a loan forgiveness program for healthcare professionals (S.0712). Geared towards retaining employees in short-staffed rural hospitals, this bill is passed could award up to $30,000 to an eligible healthcare professional in an underserved rural area or an urban area with underserved populations.

At 10 a.m., another bill (H.3590) addressing South Carolina's workforce issue will be discussed by the Senate education subcommittee on Jan. 20. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Allison from Spartanburg, can allow school districts to hire non-certified teachers, provided they have a bachelor's degree in the subject area they wish to teach.

Also at 10 a.m., the Senate medical affairs committee will discuss a bill that would not allow health professionals to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to minors without parental consent.

That's all from me today!

I'll be back next week with more updates on how everything goes. In the meantime, here's my sincere ask again:

If there’s something I’m missing, don’t hesitate to reach out. I welcome any feedback, news tips and ideas you have.

My work isn’t possible without Greenville News subscribers. If you subscribe, thank you. If you don’t, I hope you’ll believe that we care, want to do good journalism every day and consider supporting our work.

Signing out,

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Here's what's up in South Carolina

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