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SC Senate tentatively approves $7 billion spending plan

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate on Monday tentatively approved a $7 billion spending plan for state taxes with little dissent, but that doesn't end this week's floor debate.

The Senate gave a key second reading to the budget on a voice vote less than three hours after opening discussion. Senators postponed discussion on a handful of amendments and allowed for more to be offered as work continues Tuesday. Senators must vote one more time on the budget to return it to the House.

"There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of fight over," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

That won't be the case for a $236 million borrowing package for construction at colleges and National Guard armories. That's part of a separate bill already blocked by opposing senators. A supermajority vote is needed just to debate the proposal, which Gov. Nikki Haley is fighting.

Senate Finance's budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $8.5 million to hire 262 employees at the embattled Department of Social Services and provide pay raises of up to 15 percent, matching the budget request the agency's new director made in March. The vast majority of the new hires would be caseworkers and their assistants. The pay raises of between 5 percent and 15 percent are an effort to stem high turnover in the high-stress jobs.

"This begins to address the shortage of caseworkers and unacceptable high caseloads," said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, chairman of Finance's health and human services subcommittee. "It fully funds the agency's request for the initiative, which is so critical to the safety and wellbeing of our children."

Former Director Lillian Koller had told legislators for years she needed no additional money or manpower. But a Senate panel's investigation last year into the agency's failures to protect children in its care, including deaths, showed some caseworkers were responsible for more than 100 children. After Koller resigned, agency officials agreed they needed more staff.

Here's a look at other items in the Senate Finance budget proposal:

— Like the House budget plan, it provides no across-the-board pay raises to state employees but does cover increases in their health insurance premiums, which will cost the state $35 million. Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman says that's equivalent to a pay raise of more than 2 percent.

— Also like the House plan, it puts about $100 million more into K-12 schools to increase the so-called base student cost by $100 per student. Increasing it to the full amount called for through a 1977 funding formula would cost roughly $500 million more.

— It allocates $29 million for buying new school buses and $40 million for textbooks and other instructional materials.

— It provides $3.4 million for police body cameras, which is expected to buy about 2,000 cameras and pay for data storage. There are more than 12,000 state and local officers statewide. Some agencies already have cameras, though how many is unknown.

— It restores money and duties to the Commission on Higher Education, which the House plan eliminated.

— It transfers an additional $50 million collected from the state sales taxes on vehicles to the State Infrastructure Bank to borrow money for road construction.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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