(TNS) — An early effort to expand absentee voting ahead of the November general election failed on Wednesday as the South Carolina House agreed to spend more than $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief, sending the legislation to the governor for his signature.
After a roughly three-hour whirlwind debate on Wednesday, lawmakers adopted the legislation in a 109-2 vote, agreeing to changes made and adopted by the Senate on Tuesday.
Lawmakers will hold onto more than $668 million of the $1.9 billion federal relief, money the state got through the federal CARES Act legislation signed by President Donald Trump in March to help offset states’ and taxpayers’ COVID-19 costs.
House budget chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, told reporters Wednesday that the leftover money could be used to bolster the state’s plan to further expand broadband internet, an issue now at the top of a priority list for lawmakers.
“What we need to concentrate on between now and September is developing a plan for broadband in South Carolina,” Smith said.
State lawmakers aren’t expected back in Columbia until mid-September, when legislators will be charged with passing a new state budget and other legislation. Then, lawmakers are likely to make another effort to expand absentee voting before hundreds of thousands of South Carolina voters head to the polls amid a coronavirus outbreak, which has surpassed 27,000 cases.
Lawmakers fast-tracked a bill in May to expand absentee voting ahead of the June primary and runoff. But they did not extend the early voting option for all through the November election, unsure whether cases would continue to rise.
On Wednesday, as the House debated the spending bill, the state’s public health agency announced another 1,291 positive COVID-19 cases. The announcement marked the state’s highest number of cases reported in one day.
“What’s wrong with ensuring everybody gets an opportunity to vote?” said state Rep. David Mack, D-Charleston, who is retiring from the House at the end of the year after serving 24 years. “This thing is not going away in a week-and-a-half. COVID is not going to be better in a month-and-a-half. To use a cliche, it’s going to be a minute.”
A handful of S.C. lawmakers avoided the House on Wednesday as more lawmakers donned masks and some face shields.
Lawmakers not present included state Rep. Nancy Mace, a Daniel Island Republican running to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham. Mace said Tuesday that she tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the latest and second state lawmaker to acknowledge contracting the virus.
“I was feeling a little fatigued with a body ache this weekend but that is kind of normal on the campaign trail,” Mace tweeted on Tuesday. “I have a slightly stuffy nose and mild body ache, but I do not have a fever or cough.”
Included in the COVID-19 legislation is $500 million to help fill back up the state’s jobless fund, which since March, when the outbreak first hit South Carolina, has lost more than $540 million, or about 49 percent, of its initial $1.1 billion total.
Another $270 million will go to reimbursement state agencies, local governments and universities for COVID-19 spending.
And $50 million will be spent to expand broadband internet, despite the actual cost of a full expansion being more than $800 million, according to an expert’s estimate.
An attempt to raise that amount to $100 million by state Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, failed.
Asked how the Legislature might spend the second phase of federal aid in September, Smith said he expects a concentration of dollars to help reimburse state agencies and local governments. So far, more than $282 million has been spent by agencies, colleges, local governments and more for COVID-19 response. That could climb beyond the $632 million initially projected.
“When you’re at the record levels of COVID infections, you would imagine that state ... agencies and local governments are going to spend more money,” Smith said. “(We’re) projecting reimbursements may be a lot greater than what we see.”
Some lawmakers said Wednesday they’d like to see that money go to help small businesses.
Others said they hope legislators will help essential workers.
“When we come back in September, we need to take the blinders off, we need to stop looking through these rose colored glasses,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “And we need to decide that we’re going to do something for these essential workers. ... Since (we’re) so ready to reopen this state and reopen our economy, the least we can do in my view is to protect those workers, those invisible people who y’all don’t pay attention to.”
COVID-19 Spending Bill
The House agreed with the Senate to spend:
- $500 million, to replenish the unemployment trust fund
- $270 million, to reimburse state and local governments, and college and university COVID-19 spending;
- $222.7 million, for the state’s Department of Education to hold face-to-face summer academic recovery camps for roughly 25,000 students who completed Kindergarten through third grade, add five days of instruction to the school calendar from four-year-old kindergarten through eighth grade, reimburse for food services and pay for cafeteria workers;
- $125 million, for a hospital relief fund through the state’s Department of Administration;
- $50 million, for internet broadband mapping and planning, infrastructure and mobile hot spots;
- $42.4 million, for the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control for statewide testing and monitoring;
- $16.8 million, for the state Adjutant General’s emergency management division for PPE stockpile and supply chain; and
- $10 million, for the third-party grant administrator firm, Guidehouse, that will vet, process and audit the federal relief.
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