COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – South Carolina legislators expect to wait until January to take up Gov. Henry McMaster’s budget vetoes, leaving in limbo more than $20 million intended to replace school buses that are decades old and prone to fires.
Three of the 41 budget items McMaster struck June 12 spent 2016-17 lottery surpluses on buses. Legislative leaders expect those line-item vetoes to be easily overridden.
“I didn’t understand it. It seemed like a strange thing to veto, and the reasoning behind the veto made you scratch your head,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
A roughly $8 billion budget takes effect Saturday with McMaster’s vetoes, which struck $56 million total.
Legislators’ budget plan spent nearly $29 million on replacing hundreds of rear-engine buses that are prone to overheating and fires and costly to maintain. McMaster said those buses should be replaced, but not with lottery surpluses, which come from greater-than-expected ticket sales and unclaimed prizes.
“The lottery money should be used only for scholarships for our young people because that’s what voters were promised 17 years ago,” McMaster said in a taped message released on social media.
Actually, the 2001 law that created the state lottery requires at least some unclaimed prize money to be designated for new school buses.
But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, legislators ignored both that provision and a 2007 law requiring them to fund enough buses annually to replace the fleet every 15 years. Massey was among legislators who successfully pushed in 2011 to renew school bus funding.
“We’re getting very close to having a real school transportation problem,” he said six years ago.
State budgets since have allocated between $12 million and $30 million annually. Still, 2007 was the last year legislators provided enough to meet the 15-year replacement cycle. Even legislators’ 2017-18 designation falls $5 million short. But the education agency plans to lease, rather than buy, about 120 buses, allowing more than 400 to be replaced.
Since McMaster didn’t veto all of the bus money, the agency is proceeding with the leases. Those buses will likely be delivered this fall. Others will be bought as soon as the money’s available, said agency spokesman Ryan Brown.
State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman said the governor’s veto puts “the safety of our students at risk.”
Many of the buses transporting students to school are older than their parents. Nearly 200 still in regular service are 29 years old. But it’s the 1,100 rear-engine buses bought in 1995 and 1996 causing the most problems – and the priority for replacement.
Spearman has urged legislators to come back.
But with few other substantive budget vetoes to consider, a special session at taxpayers’ expense may not make sense. And planned summer vacations make scheduling one difficult anyway, said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill.
While legislators get no extra salary for additional days, they are paid mileage and per diems for lodging and meals.
“In weighing the pros and cons of the return, is it worth taxpayer dollars to come back to Columbia?” Simrill said. “Or can it wait until January?”
The current consensus is that it can, particularly since the buses couldn’t be bought before the school year starts regardless, he said.
Last year, officials certified lottery surpluses, making that money available to spend, in late August.
By law, the House must take up budget vetoes first, so it would be futile for only the Senate to return.
“We’re dependent on what the House will do,” Massey said, adding he’d prefer not to return.
It’s been 14 years since legislators didn’t return for a special session to override budget vetoes. The Legislature waited until January 2004 to consider the first vetoes of then-Gov. Mark Sanford’s tenure.