NEWS: Legislators wait on bus funding, causing some to worry about risk

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By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent  |  Top lawmakers say they are waiting until January to override a gubernatorial veto, an action that would fund hundreds of new school buses.  Why the wait?  They say it’s because they are being good stewards of public dollars.  And anyway, waiting to override the veto won’t delay getting dangerously old buses off roads, they say.

Others wonder if there’s more to it.  

S.C. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill,  told Statehouse Report the state S.C. Department of Education currently has the funds it could temporarily use to order the buses.  That money, he said, would then be reimbursed by a January override that would release $17.5 million from S.C. Education Lottery proceeds. He said it’s up to state Superintendent Molly Spearman to order the buses sooner rather than later.

But as some wonder whether the wait to get old buses off the road  is a big political gamble, the S.C. Department of Education says it can’t purchase those buses without the lottery money.

S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said an override vote now would mean hundreds of new buses on the road by second semester of 2017-2018 school year, instead of at the start of the 2018-2019 school year.  Whenever the department receives the money, it will take three to six months to have an additional 218 school buses on the road, according to  Brown.

The problem

In early May, nearly 60 Spartanburg-area school children were riding a school bus when it caught fire. The bus driver was able to get all 56 children on board to safety in less than a minute. It made national headlines and focused a spotlight on the nation’s only state-run school bus system.

According to a May 15 article in The State, 17 state buses have either caught fire or dangerously overheated since the start of school in 2015. According to the education department, about one-third of its 5,000-bus fleet is made up of these 20-plus-year-old buses.

When children start back to school next month, some will invariably ride those buses because they are still in operation, according to Brown.

Prior to the Great Recession, lawmakers started earmarking funds to begin a replacement system for the aging fleet and keep the buses younger than 15 years. But the plan was  halted as the state tightened its belt during the economic squeeze.

This year, Department of Education requested $105 million to begin cycling out the worst of the worst buses.  Included in the request was $10 million in  recurring funds. The other $95 million was a one-time injection to get the department well on its way toward the needed $260 million estimated to replace the buses.

To replace just one-fifteenth of the fleet on an annual basis, the department said in its budget request this year that it would need $34 million every year.  Of the $105 million requested for the current budget year, the General Assembly appropriated $29 million, which would have funded the replacement of more than 400 aging buses around the state, according to Brown.

But in mid June, Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed $17.5 million of the money set aside by the General Assembly which was accrued surplus from the state’s education lottery proceeds. In a statement, McMaster said he vetoed the spending reluctantly and that he questioned the use of the lottery’s money for something outside of scholarships.

Spending lottery money on buses in the state has a precedent, however, and it’s that precedent that lawmakers cite for the coming override vote.

While the vote to release the the lottery money is pending, the education department said it has been able to purchase 274 new buses through state funds and previous year’s savings.

“If they were to come back tomorrow and override that veto, we could purchase those (remaining 218) buses and they would be here in three to six months,” Brown said.

The risk

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said waiting to replace old buses that are potentially hazardous poses a big risk for bus drivers and students, not to mention the political risk for legislators if something goes awry.

Cobb-Hunter

“It is just inconceivable to me that the General Assembly would potentially put children’s lives at risk by not coming back and clearing up this issue with school buses,” she said.  “We should have already dealt with this so school districts don’t have to worry about a bus accident, heaven forbid ”

Cobb-Hunter added that several other vetoes by McMaster should be taken up sooner, rather than later, because they stalled funding for some smaller agencies and programs, which will struggle in the short term.

“(Waiting) shows to me a callousness to those agencies that are dependent on overriding the governor’s vetoes,” she said, pointing to how the wait for veto overrides will force Orangeburg County to have a school board election in the fall that probably won’t be needed because of a bill that would consolidate some county schools..  

Override isn’t in question

Two GOP leaders appear to agree that  the bus funding veto will be overridden and that the vote will take place once the General Assembly convenes, likely in January unless another need arises.

Grooms

“It will be quickly overridden the first day the General Assembly is back in session,” said S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said, adding it would also happen “at our earliest convenience.”

Simrill agreed with Grooms.

“It will be overwhelming. It is not a partisan issue. It’s a safety issue,” Simrill said.

And it’s something the education department is counting on.

“It’s overwhelmingly positive that both the House and Senate are going to override. It’s a matter of when,” Brown said.

Lawmakers said they have their reasons for waiting until January.

Simrill said hundreds of new buses are already about to hit the road.

Simrill

“Why doesn’t General Assembly come back early? Clearly buses — other buses — have been ordered,” Simrill said, speaking of the nearly 300 buses funded by the state and from the department’s savings.

And, Simrill said, the lottery funds slated for the 218 buses were to be available, but be released for expenditures until August or September — which would only delay the buses by a few more months than waiting until January. An inquiry to the Department of Administration went unanswered to confirm this statement.

For an immediate fix, Simrill said that carry-forward funds from the Education Improvement Act (EIA) could buy the vetoed buses.

“In the interim, if funding is there, certainly Superintendent Spearman can go ahead and order those buses and they will be paid for in January,” Simrill said.

However, according to Brown, the legislature directed the department to use EIA carry-forward funds for helping poor school districts included in the state Supreme Court’s Abbeville ruling, which found the state has not adequately funded those districts for years.

Simrill also said that calling a special legislative session would cost $50,000 — or about half a school bus.

“Looking at the best way of being stewards of the taxpayer dollar, if there is a way to accomplish that same goal without spending funds bringing the General Assembly back to Columbia, that is the preferred route,” Simrill said. “Does it behoove us to go back into session now or is that something that can wait until January, that the same goal is accomplished?”

So is half a school bus for legislators to come back into session worth getting the override sooner rather than later?

Grooms turned that question back on McMaster for his veto.

“I’m not able to understand the governor’s logic on the veto but … I got no doubt the legislature will override,” Grooms said. “The only question is when.”

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3 Comments

  1. Elaine Huff-Lowe says:

    The legislators are cowards for not allocating enough funding from the general revenue to purchase much needed new buses. The excess EIA funds are supposed to go to poor rural schools which our legislators fought in the courts for 20 years so they wouldn’t have to do the humane thing. Shame, shame, shame for not fixing the corridor of shame. The lottery money is supposed to go to college scholarships which already has to be supplemented from the general revenue. Dare I say it – could it be be we need REAL tax reform and increased taxes to ensure our children’s/grandchildren’s safety? How much longer are we going to keep our heads in the sand and watch our state crumble from within because no one is willing to pay their fair share?

  2. Emily Moss says:

    Amen, Elaine!!!

  3. Ronnie Ray James says:

    Will it take a tragedy for them to act??!! I hope not!! Every child is precious!!!

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