COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The South Carolina Senate approved a budget proposal late Thursday that would allow hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of road and bridge construction, let more poor 4-year-olds go to school for a full day, and buy hundreds of school buses.
The 31-6 vote followed seven days of floor debate on the Senate's $6.3 billion plan. Another round of votes Tuesday would send the 2013-14 spending proposal back to the House. The chambers have two weeks left in the regular session to hash out differences in their plans.
Proposals for funding road and bridge work have repeatedly bogged down in the Senate over the last two weeks.
The amendment, approved with bipartisan support, transfers $50 million to the State Infrastructure Bank, to be leveraged through borrowing, potentially translating to $500 million worth of work. The clause specifies the money must go to new projects.
"It's a great thing! It begins to address infrastructure needs that are just tremendous," said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, a co-sponsor of the amendment, which mimicked a bill he proposed. "It gives us the biggest results."
The Department of Transportation says it needs $1.5 billion yearly over 20 years just to get roads to good condition.
Setzler said Democrats will continue to push for a bill advanced by the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month that would fund infrastructure through a combination of redirecting taxes, borrowing money and raising fees. But many Republicans oppose the package as raising taxes, and time is running out on the package this year.
In another compromise worked out late Thursday, the Senate agreed to restore $20 million to local governments by taking money from 16 areas ranging from college scholarships to vehicle replacement to the marketing of state parks and farmers markets. The Senate plan is now in line with the House plan in giving city and county governments an additional $30 million next fiscal year.
Senators agreed to put $23.5 million toward buying new school buses for the oldest-in-the-nation fleet, up from $12 million that the Senate Finance Committee proposed. The money could buy roughly 300 buses.
Two-thirds of the buses in South Carolina's fleet for public schools remain at least 15 years old.
The budget also provides $26 million to expand full-day 4-year-old kindergarten to all school districts where more than 75 percent of students live in poverty.
The state has funded a half-school-day for at-risk 4 year olds since 1984. But a full day paid by the state is available only in three dozen districts that sued the state over education funding 20 years ago. That full-day program was created in 2006 after a court required the state to do more in the early years to help children overcome the effects of poverty. It's been considered a pilot program ever since.
The Senate budget would pay for the first of a multi-year phase-in, picking up 17 districts with poverty rates up to 94.5 percent and leaving 30 districts still without the full-day state-paid program.