- Associated Press
Friday, May 19, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - House Speaker Jay Lucas is encouraging South Carolina House members not to waste their time and taxpayers’ money by returning to the capital Tuesday, since there is no budget compromise to consider.

Before the regular session ended May 11, the Legislature created a three-day special session, scheduled to start Tuesday, to take up the budget and potential compromises on differing versions of other bills passed by both chambers.

A six-member panel of Senate and House members was expected to craft a compromise this week between the chambers’ roughly $8 billion spending plans for the fiscal year starting July 1. But they’ve yet to do so despite days of negotiation, almost exclusively out of public sight.

House Clerk Charles Reid told representatives in an email Friday “there is no need” to attend until there’s a budget to vote on.

“In order to be more efficient in the use of taxpayer funds AND your time and effort, the House will NOT consider any business on Tuesday,” Reid wrote.

But since state law sets the special session, Lucas will officially gavel it in Tuesday and, after taking the required attendance roll call - of an empty chamber - immediately adjourn. Lucas will wait for the budget panel to “complete its work” before deciding when to call House members back, Reid said.

The notice could save taxpayers more than $22,000 daily in House allowances.

Legislators’ base salary is a flat $10,400 annually. But House members get $190 per diem while in Columbia for session or legislative meetings.

No similar message has gone out to the Senate’s 46 members. Their per diem is $195.

Unlike in previous years when budget negotiations dragged on, there’s no looming threat of a government shutdown - at least not yet. The fiscal year’s start is still six weeks away. A law passed last year shortened the regular session by three weeks.

Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, who also chairs the chamber’s budget-writing committee, said last week the shorter session may need to be revisited. But House members who pushed for the change for years are highly unlikely to consider extending it back. Both chambers had approved their spending packages by April 6 - five weeks before the regular session ended - but legislators delayed budget negotiations until they secured a road-funding compromise, which became law May 10 over Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto.

Many of the differences between the chambers’ budget plans are in education.

For example, the House’s version would provide $100 million to high-poverty districts to help refurbish dilapidated K-12 schools, while the Senate plan cuts that in half. The Senate proposal puts an additional $30 million into per-pupil spending but spends $14 million less on school buses. And the Senate version gives public colleges an additional $16 million, while the House proposal provides colleges no new funding.

Other disputes involve pension contribution increases.

A law passed last month to shore up the state’s pension system for public workers requires a 7-percentage-point hike in employers’ contribution rates over the next six years, starting with a 2-percentage-point hike July 1.

Both chambers’ budget plans fully cover the law’s required 2017-18 increases for state agencies that are funded primarily by state taxes. They cover up to half the increase for other employers in the system, including colleges and local governments, but distribute the money differently.

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