Senate panel restores college cuts passed by SC House over gay-themes

Senate budget writers voted Wednesday to restore about $70,000 in state money to two S.C. colleges, money the S.C. House voted to cut for assigning gay-themed books.

The Senate Finance Committee also voted to give legislators, in effect, a $12,000-a-year raise.

The Senate’s Finance Committee voted 11-7 to restore the money to the budgets of the University of South Carolina-Upstate and the College of Charleston.

By removing the money, critics said legislators improperly had interfered with the academic freedom of higher education institutions.

Senators said they expect the issue to be debated again when the committee’s budget proposal goes to the full Senate, expected to happen starting Tuesday.

State Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, who supported the House’s decision to cut the money, said the controversy has been uncomfortable for those who support higher education.

“I’m tired of throwing rocks,” Fair said, adding he thought the universities made efforts to respond to lawmakers’ concerns.

Still, in a show-of-hands vote, Fair joined six other senators in opposing restoring the money.

Fair said if the full Senate restores the money, that decision will debated again when a joint House-Senate conference committee meets to hammer out differences between the House and Senate budget proposals for the state’s $7 billion general fund.

That debate will be an unneeded disagreement, Fair said. “We’re not going to settle this issue of nurture or nature through the budget debate.”

A pay raise?

The pay raise — approved by an 11-4 vote — would come in the form of increasing by $1,000 a month the in-district expenses that lawmakers are paid. Legislators currently are paid $1,000 a month for those expenses. If approved, that stipend would increase to $24,000 a year.

In addition, legislators are paid an annual salary of $10,400.

The last legislative increase was approved almost 20 years ago in 1995, said Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Some legislative districts span five or six counties, Leatherman said, making travel expenses hefty to meet with constituents.

However, the pay raise idea, which was not included in the House’s budget proposal, could face stiff opposition.

Two Senate leaders — President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland, and Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler — voted against the pay increase as did Sens. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, and Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.

Budget differences

State Senate budget writers approved spending more money in some areas than was included in the budget passed earlier this session by the S.C. House. Those areas include:

$24.4 million in additional money to expand the state’s 4-year-old kindergarten program for at-risk students

$25 million more for higher education; while more than the House budgeted, it is still about $6 million less than higher education received in this year’s budget

A $300 bonus for each state employee, subject to more state revenue being forecast by the Bureau of Economic Advisors; Senate budget writers also kept the same pay raise for state employees — 1.5 percent — as adopted by the House

$348,400 more for the state attorney general’s office to prosecute violent, gang-related and sex crimes

Offsetting cuts: To spend more in those areas, budget writers voted to cut other areas. A complete list of those cuts was not immediately available.