SC Senate Approves Covering Federal Share Of Port
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) â The state Senate gave key approval Wednesday to a bill allowing South Carolina to borrow $120 million to deepen the Charleston harbor if the federal government doesn't pay its share, but a Republican senator continues to block the vote needed to send it to the House.
The Senate voted 40-3 to approve a bill authorizing the state to issue bonds if necessary to cover the federal share of the expected $300 million dredging project. The House's proposed budget for 2012-13 already sets aside $180 million to fund South Carolina's share, and that's expected to stay in the Senate version.
Senators said it's about assuring businesses that South Carolina will be able to accommodate the super-size ships expected regularly on the East Coast in 2014 after the widening of the Panama Canal, so the state's economic engine doesn't further lose business to its fiercest competitor in Savannah, Ga.
"It's my hope that we'll be able to send a very loud and strong message around the world that South Carolina is the place to be. We are committed to our port and we will follow through," said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau.
The vote came after Sen. Kevin Bryant removed his objection. In the Senate, a single senator can block a bill.
Bryant agrees the project is essential but doesn't want the state to borrow money to fund it. He said he agreed to allow a so-called "second reading" to give the bill a chance to make it to the House before the May 1 crossover deadline.
But he continues to hold up the additional required vote unless Senate leaders agree to pay down a corresponding amount of state debt elsewhere over several years, such as unemployment benefits and retirees' health insurance.
Bryant, R-Anderson, said he understands the marketing strategy and recognizes there's no reason to set aside an additional $120 million in the budget, since it's unclear whether the infusion will even be needed.
"But if we don't borrow the money, then we're $120 million out of debt," he said.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman said he would work with Bryant overnight to address his concerns.
"This is so important to this state," he said. "We have to do it."
The state hasn't issued capital improvement bonds since 2000. The port bonds, if issued, would not add to the budget, due to declining debt payments and refinancing by the treasurer's office. But the additional debt would mean payments would not decline as rapidly, according to state budget advisors.
The total state debt, as funded through the state's general fund and college tuition, is $1.86 billion. The state is spending $199 million this year to cover principal and interest payments â well below the legal limit of 5 percent of general fund revenue, according to the state treasurer's office.