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Senate Finance Committee advances $7B state budget plan, $236M borrowing package

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The Senate's budget-writing committee advanced a package Wednesday that includes borrowing $236 million, mostly for college construction.

Senate Finance voted 16-5 on the bond proposal after a unanimous vote on its separate, $7 billion spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Broken down, the borrowing measure provides $91 million for technical colleges, $131 million for universities and $15 million for National Guard armories. Many of the schools' presidents and board chairmen filled the meeting to show their support, including College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell, the Senate's former leader, and Clemson Chairman David Wilkins, former House speaker and U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman said he intentionally limited the proposal to higher education and defense.

"It's the cleanest bond bill I've ever seen," said Leatherman, R-Florence, who's also Finance chairman. "I don't want this to expand whatsoever."

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has already pledged to veto any borrowing proposal.

During last month's budget debate in the House, its leaders moved to kill their own $500 million bonding proposal, partly because of Haley's criticism.

But supporters say borrowing can address long-overdue maintenance and building needs without raising taxes. The state's borrowing costs would still decrease because old debt is being paid off. The state's last such bond bill was 15 years ago.

Each of the state's 33 public colleges benefit, receiving between $950,000 and $20 million for projects. The four getting $20 million each are the state's three research universities — Clemson, University of South Carolina and Medical University of South Carolina — as well as Trident Technical College in North Charleston.

Senate Education chairman John Courson, R-Columbia, said he supports the proposal because of its college focus, noting the state's direct spending on higher education has shrunk by more than 40 percent in the past decade.

"We've got significant infrastructure needs at our universities and technical colleges," said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. "We can either do this or ask them to pass the cost along to our constituents and students, which will show up in higher tuition costs and higher loans."

Proponents also emphasized that, although interest rates remain near historic lows, they won't stay there.

"Right now, the borrowing climate is absolutely perfect. It will never be this good ever in our lifetime," said Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Inman. "We have no choice. We have to do it."

Because of how it's packaged, the Senate's bonding proposal will require two-thirds approval.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler doubted that much support exists, particularly because legislators are also looking to raise gas taxes for road and bridge construction.

"We're biting off more than we can chew on the floor of the Senate," said Peeler, R-Gaffney, among those who voted no.

Sen. Tom Davis, who also voted no, criticized the entire budget package for not addressing the state's road needs, noting that the state's general fund is expected to collect an additional $300 million next fiscal year. He also noted that the committee allocated none of this year's expected surplus to roadwork.

"If we had the political will, we could find a way to fund our roads and bridges" without a hefty gas tax increase, Davis said.

On the committee's 2015-16 budget plan, differences with the House include a $17 million allotment to Commerce for economic development deals and fully funding the Department of Social Services' request to hire 262 additional employees, costing roughly $9 million. It also provides $3.4 million to equip 2,000 law enforcement officers across the state with body cameras, with $1 million of that going toward data storage.

Both the House and Senate plans put an additional $100 million toward K-12 education to raise the so-called base student cost.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White said he still supports a bond package for workforce training and other economic development needs.

"You can't train workers in a parking lot. You've got to have facilities," said White, R-Anderson, whom Haley has repeatedly criticized this session. "The governor and Commerce did a great job of recruiting industry. Now we've got to train the workers."

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