By Cassie Cope
S.C. state representatives voted to give themselves a $12,000-a-year pay raise Tuesday, overriding a veto of the pay hike by Gov. Nikki Haley.
Overall, the GOP-controlled House voted to sustain only 15 of Republican Haley's 76 vetoes, agreeing to cut $1.4 million from the state's $7 billion general fund budget. Haley had wanted to trim $18.5 million from the state budget that takes effect July 1.
The 61 vetoes the House overturned now go to the majority-Republican state Senate, where two-thirds of state senators also must agree to override the governor or Haley's vetoes stand. The pay raise should be on friendlier grounds in the Senate, which originally added the $12,000 pay hike to the state budget at a total cost of $2 million.
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Supporters say the pay raise -- a $1,000-a-month increase in legislative expenses -- is justified to pay the higher cost of gas as lawmakers travel around their more populous legislative districts.
S.C. lawmakers now are paid a $10,400 a year salary and $12,000 for in-district expenses. Legislators also receive mileage costs and $140 a day for hotel accommodations and food costs while the Legislature is session.
Haley vetoed the raise, condemning the way lawmakers originally went about increasing their pay. She said the raise should be decided by voters.
The House's first attempt to overturn Haley's veto Tuesday failed 73-39, falling two votes short of the two-thirds majority of those voting. However, the raise was taken back up again and passed 73-29.
State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, told the House the General Assembly last increased its pay in 1995. Legislators' districts have grown since then, he said, adding legislators who do not want the pay raise can opt out.
If voters were to decide the issue, lawmakers would have to wait four years before ballots could be cast, Merrill added.
Haley took to Facebook to rip the House vote, posting a photo of the vote tally sheet.
"Unreal. The House just reconsidered and voted themselves a pay raise," she wrote. "Those who voted (yes) or didn't vote at all ... supported raising their own pay. Thank those who voted (no) and stood with us."
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, supported the raise. "It should not cost a member money to serve."
However, state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, voted against the extra cash for lawmakers.
"My voters talked to me about more money for roads and schools and jobs," not pay raises for lawmakers, he said.
Senators could take up the pay raise issue as early as Wednesday. Representative also voted to overturn Haley's veto of an added $2 million for the Lieutenant Governor's Office for Caregivers through the Home and Community Based Services program.
Haley vetoed that portion of the lieutenant governor's budget because, she said, it was growing too quickly -- nearly tripling over the past four years.
But Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, defended the program, saying it is 40 times cheaper to support seniors in their homes than for the state to pay for a nursing-home bed under Medicaid. "Such home and community-based services commonly include a meal a day, delivered to senior citizens and vulnerable adults who are unable to care for themselves," McConnell said. "The services also prevent middle-class seniors from going through their assets and the eventual transition to a more expensive Medicaid nursing bed." State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, who is running for lieutenant governor in November, agreed.
"Keeping our seniors in their homes not only restores their dignity but saves our state money," Sellers said.
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