The South Carolina House worked into Tuesday evening, much later than usual, to try to pass as many bills as possible, to keep them alive for the year ahead of the pending crossover deadline. A bill has to have passed either the House or the Senate by May 11st to have a realistic chance of passing this year. After that, a bill has to get a two-thirds vote just to be debated, which is unlikely for anything controversial.
The main thing the House wanted to get passed was an ethics reform bill, which it passed 113 to 7 just before 5 p.m.
Education is always one of the most important issues at the Statehouse, and House members say the budget they already passed will improve South Carolina schools. That bill is now in the Senate, which is working on its own version.
The House bill would spend more on each student in the state, raising the per-pupil spending from $2,012 this year to $2,101 next year. The House budget also has an additional $12 million for charter schools to handle their growth. And the House plan would spend $10 million to buy some new school buses, to replace some in the state's aging fleet.
The House also passed a bill to no longer require high school students to pass an exit exam in order to graduate. They would still take the exam, though, because its scores are used to assess schools and districts.
But one of the biggest issues of the year is the condition of our roads and bridges, and almost all of the bills aimed at improving them are dead for the year. The only one that will meet the crossover deadline is a House bill that would move some of the money from the sales tax on cars and trucks from the General Fund to the SCDOT.
Rep. Phil Owens, R-Easley, chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee that handles highways, says, "We are very concerned about the infrastructure in South Carolina. As we continue to improve our economic development, as we continue to bring in the big companies that we have, they continue to remind us that something's got to be done about the roads and the bridges in South Carolina. The first start was the moving of the sales tax. We're continuing to look at where can we go from there?"
A special Senate subcommittee is looking at several bills that deal with highway funding, but those bills will not pass by the crossover deadline. Among those bills are ones that would: borrow $500 million for roads and bridges; use for roads and bridges a portion of any new revenue the state gets each year; allow counties to have a public vote on whether to raise their gas tax by up to two cents a gallon, with that additional money staying in the county and going to roads; and allow counties to raise their sales tax to bring in more money for roads.
Still alive for the year is the issue of whether to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The House did not include that money in its version of the budget.
Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, House Majority Leader, says, "What the Affordable Care Act wants to do is expand Medicaid and the system that we have, and in South Carolina we don't believe the Medicaid system we have now is a functional way to pay for health care, and we are looking at alternatives."
He and other Republicans have argued that, even though the federal government will pay for all of the expansion for the first few years and then 90 percent after that, the state still can't afford the expansion.
But hundreds of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals crammed the Statehouse lobby Tuesday to push for the expansion. Dr. Coy Irvin, a general practitioner at McLeod Health in Florence, says, "We can afford it if we realize how much $11 billion will mean to the state coming in over the next 7 years. If you look at what we did for Boeing: 9 to 1 match. The feds are offering us a 9 to 1 match. It's kind of hard to turn that down."
He says the expansion would mean health coverage for about 275,000 people who don't have it now, which will mean they won't have to go to emergency rooms for care, which will lower costs for everyone.
Getting that through the legislature will be a tough sell, though, and Gov. Nikki Haley is also against expanding Medicaid.
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