The South Carolina Senate passed changes Tuesday to the state budget that would provide a small raise to most teachers and a hazard pay bonus for some lower-paid state workers.
Now attention turns to the House, where leaders may prefer not to change the budget at all with worries that COVID-19 could continue to hobble the economy and cut state revenues.
Lawmakers have already agreed to keep spending levels for the budget year that started in July at the same levels as the year before.
Six months ago, before the pandemic started, economists thought the state would have an extra $800 million collected in fees and taxes to spend in the 2020-2021 budget. With tax revenues and fees plunging, that number has been revised to just over $80 million.
Lawmakers do have about $775 million saved from the past two budget cycles, and the Senate bill passed Tuesday during a special session does set aside $500 million to try to prevent cuts if revenues fall further.
The bill sets aside $50 million for education, most of it going to teachers in what are called “step increases” — annual raises of several hundred dollars given to most teachers based on how many years they have worked. Those raises were frozen for this budget year in the spring as COVID-19 spread. If approved, teachers will get the extra money set retroactively to July 1.
The bill also gives $1,000 hazard pay bonuses to around 12,000 state employees, such as prison guards, state troopers and some health care workers, who make less than $50,000 a year and had to keep working during the pandemic. The lawmakers set aside $20 million for those bonuses.
The vote kicks the budget to the House, which could refuse to take up the Senate changes and choose to keep spending exactly at last year’s levels until January when a new General Assembly is sworn in or beyond.
“If the House refuses to take it up, none of this changes,” said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, a Democrat from West Columbia.