COLUMBIA - Senators took up legislation Wednesday that aims to slow implementation of the federal health care overhaul in South Carolina, but even its Republican backers acknowledge it makes no attempt to nullify the law as many people believe.
The original bill, as introduced in January 2013, sought to void the law in South Carolina and make it illegal for public employees to help implement it. But that language was dropped before an amended, largely symbolic version passed the House last April.
Still, some GOP senators insisted the bill should be top priority, as constituents called for nullification. As the session wound to a close last year, the chamber's self-proclaimed William Wallace Caucus negotiated a deal that put the measure on special debate status in the Senate, forgoing the committee process.
Sen. Tom Davis, who was tasked with studying during the off-session what the state could legally do, said he accepts the federal government's ability to enact the law. But he proposes barring the use of state resources to help implement it.
"Why in the world would we spend state dollars to help its implementation when we're not obligated to do so?" he asked.
He agreed that his proposal would bar direct spending as well as using taxpayer-funded property, such as public libraries' computers to help people enroll.
The Senate took no vote Wednesday. Debate is expected to continue Thursday.
Davis' amendment, which he has dubbed the Anti- Commandeering Act, sets regulations for navigators who help people sign up for health insurance through the federal website. It also requires state agencies to hold hearings before applying for federal grants tied to the Affordable Care Act. Davis said that's intended to spark public discussion about any commitments the state makes by taking the money.
"At the end of the day, the ACA will still be the law of the land in South Carolina," said Davis, R-Beaufort. "It's a misnomer that what we're attempting to do is nullify the ACA. Nullification is not a remedy we ought to pursue. I've kept us away from the rocks."
Like the House version, Davis' amendment would put in state law South Carolina Republicans' already well-documented refusal to create a state website for buying health insurance policies. South Carolina is among the 36 states that chose not to run its own exchange, leaving that responsibility to the federal government.
Davis' proposal also would put South Carolina's refusal to expand Medicaid eligibility in state law. Democrats contend the GOP refusal is foolish ideology that prevents 200,000 poor residents from receiving health care through the government program for the poor and disabled.
Davis' amendment removes from the House version a state income tax break for residents fined by the federal government for not having health insurance.
Before Davis explained his amendment, Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson sarcastically suggested the Senate just go ahead and pass the legislation. He wanted to emphasize that it would not nullify the federal law, despite the hundreds of emails he'd received from people who thought otherwise.
"Let's just pass it because it does nothing. Save us a couple of weeks of useless debate," said Jackson, D-Columbia. "What was declared constitutional will still be the law of the land, even in South Carolina."