COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina senators Tuesday approved $45 million in emergency funding to fight the new coronavirus and will debate whether to go ahead and pass a plan to keep government operating if they can’t meet enough to approve a budget.
The Senate Finance Committee met in a nearly empty room Tuesday and the Senate met in a nearly empty Statehouse later.
After getting an update on the virus and agreeing to send the emergency request to the full Senate, the committee then debated what kind of message it would send if they voted in mid-March for a proposal typically passed in June when budget negotiations appear to be running long.
On one side are senators who said they don’t expect a disaster that would prevent them from meeting for months, but think it is better to be prudent just in case.
“Talk about chaos in this state,” Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman of Florence said if the worst case scenario happened and state government had no way to spend money after July 1.
On the other side were senators who said it would send the wrong message to take such a drastic step when they are trying to maintain confidence with the public.
“I do not want the state for a minute to believe that we are not going to be able to get back here, because we are. We are the government of the state of South Carolina. We have met through Civil War. We have met through depressions. We have met through incredible adversity,” Sen. Vincent Sheheen said.
The Democrat’s district includes Kershaw County, which has more than half the 33 reported CODIV-19 cases in the state.
The Senate is taking up the resolution to maintain spending levels after the current budget ends in its afternoon session.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of victims recover.
Late last week, the Legislature suggested it would be business as normal even as more people were diagnosed with CODIV-19. But over the weekend, Gov. Henry McMaster closed schools across the state for at least two weeks as health officials sought to deter the spread of the virus.
A state of emergency has been declared in the U.S., South Carolina and dozens of cities Public buildings have closed and some local officials are closing or restricting how many people can gather in bars and restaurants.
The $45 million emergency funding proposal was requested by McMaster and approved 42-0 on Tuesday by the Senate. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control said it would spend $15 million on additional employees and overtime, $15 million on protective equipment, $5 million on lab supplies and cleaning and $2.5 million on a public education campaign, among other items.
Any extra money not spent would be returned, DHEC Director Rick Toomey said. But health officials said it is more likely health officials will need more money or alter the way they are spending the emergency money.
“There’s not a playbook. This is a novel virus. It is new to everyone in the world,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, a phyisician consultant with DHEC.
The House is coming back briefly Thursday to take up emergency spending matters.
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