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SC Legislature approves state budget, despite opposition

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Legislature on Tuesday approved a roughly $8 billion spending plan for state taxes, despite opposition to a provision that strips South Carolina’s higher education agency of its ability to review the bulk of public colleges’ building plans.

The Senate initially voted 19-23 to reject a budget clause suspending the Commission on Higher Education’s authority to say yes or no to public colleges’ plans for athletic facilities and all other construction projects that aren’t new academic buildings. The agency says those represent about 80 percent of all proposals.

University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides argued that removing the oversight agency from the multistep review process provides relief from “overly burdensome bureaucracy.” He contends such projects are funded by nonpublic sources, such as donations, ticket purchases and television contracts.

But Jeff Schilz, the agency’s interim president, said tuition and fees also support the projects.

The provision’s critics contend the move will lead to continued hikes in a state that already ranks highest in the Southeast for cost of a degree.

“This is taking the little bit of power they have away from them,” Sen. Chip Campsen, an Isle of Palms Republican, said of the agency. “We really ought to be moving in the direction of a Board of Regents. This moves us dramatically in the opposite direction.”

Over the past decade, the state’s public colleges have completed $3.7 billion worth of construction — “a rate which is completely unsustainable and adds to ever-rising tuition costs,” Schilz said.

Officials acknowledge the agency hasn’t previously vetted projects adequately. But they stepped up efforts after the House threatened two years ago to defund the agency entirely, calling it a rubber-stamp board.

“When they did their job, they got stripped of their authority,” said Rep. Bill Taylor, an Aiken Republican. “Tuitions could rise rapidly. It’s an unwise approach.”

He called on Gov. Henry McMaster to veto the budget clause.

The move comes one year after the agency turned down Coastal Carolina University’s plans for a new, larger football stadium. The Legislature overrode the decision in the budget over then-Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto.

Last week, the agency’s board postponed voting on whether USC could buy land near campus allowing for a soccer field elsewhere.

The Senate’s initial vote put the budget in limbo. If it had held, legislators would’ve been forced to start over with budget negotiations. Faced with the possibility of having no budget before the fiscal year’s July 1 start, senators overturned their vote and approved the budget compromise 40-2.

The House voted 100-9 to approve the deal worked out last week by a six-member panel.

“Please understand what you’re about to do,” Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, the chamber’s lead negotiator, said before the revote. “It could be a very long, hot summer.”

Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Columbia Democrat, unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to maintain their opposition.

He hoped renewed negotiations would provide money for a proposed 40,000-square-foot African-American Museum in Charleston he said would be an international tourist draw and job creator in the city where slaves were brought and sold. The Senate plan had included $5 million for the project, increasing the state’s total commitment since 2010 to $19 million. House negotiators insisted on no additional money.

Jackson said former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was counting on more state money to begin construction in January.

The project’s estimated $75 million cost was supposed to be split between the state, local governments and donations. But the county has yet to pony up and private fundraising is “nowhere close,” Leatherman said.

“I didn’t get off the last turnip truck coming into town,” he said, adding it was a key sticking point to negotiations. “This kind of monument will not be built on hope.”

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