Legislature called back to session as poll shows support building to remove Confederate flag

The Legislature will return to the capital in two weeks to tackle vetoes and debate the Confederate battle flag, as a Post and Courier poll shows support building among lawmakers to remove the banner from the Statehouse grounds.

The poll shows the House is inching toward the two-thirds majority necessary to approve taking down the battle flag. The Senate has already passed that level.

The issue has heated up following last week’s killing of nine people, including a state senator, at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, allegedly by a white supremacist who cloaked himself in the Confederate flag.

Members of both chambers have been notified that they are scheduled to return to Columbia on July 6 at 1 p.m. House Speaker Jay Lucas did clarify, however, that he may call the House back into session before then if Gov. Nikki Haley’s vetoes require immediate action, according to the email blast sent to the House.

Lawmakers approved the state’s roughly $7 billion budget on Tuesday, sending it to Haley’s desk. She has five days, not including Sundays and holidays, to veto any items.

The discussion on the removal of the Confederate battle flag also is expected to take place, but where and when remains unclear.

House members introduced two bills that call for the battle flag’s removal. But the bills are expected to be channeled through committees, potentially delaying a final vote for several weeks.

Senators, however, allowed for a bill in that chamber to skip the committee process on Tuesday. That could mean that senators might take the first vote as early as July 6, sending it to House members and potentially settling the issue before their bills make it through committee. The Post and Courier’s poll shows strong support among senators for removing the flag.

A team of reporters has been surveying lawmakers since Monday morning. As of 5 p.m. Thursday, 33 senators, or 72 percent have indicated support for removing the flag, as Haley has requested. That compares to two who have signalled their opposition to the move.

Across the aisle, 78 House members, or about 63 percent, have indicated their support for taking the flag down. Nine House members oppose it.

The remainder in both chambers either haven’t decided, won’t say where they stand or have not responded to multiple requests from The Post and Courier to state their position.

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, is among the undecided. He said people feel strongly on both sides of the debate and he wants to hear more from his constituents before weighing in. “That’s a very important part of the process,” he said.

Taylor said he has received about 1,000 emails in recent days, with about 54 percent supporting the flag’s removal and the remainder opposing it. That’s a close margin, he said, and he’s not happy the House is being summoned back so soon to take action without a chance for the normal legislative process to play out with public hearings on the matter.

“I’m not pleased with that,” he said. “I think that short-circuits the process.”

But others said it was time to act, including Republican Rep. Chip Huggins of Lexington County.

“Yes, I am in favor of bringing it down,” he said. “Obviously, the massacre had a lot to do with that. ... It’s best to try to move us forward.”

A new poll released by Missouri-based Remington Research Group shows 55 percent of 975 likely South Carolina voters surveyed supported removing the flag, 37 percent opposed it and 8 percent were unsure. The poll also showed a racial divide on the issue, with 72 percent of blacks supporting the flag’s removal compared to 47 percent of whites.

The flag was placed atop the Statehouse dome in 1962 in what some saw as a show of defiance to integration and the civil rights movement. After mass protests, it was moved to a flagpole next to a Confederate monument along the street in front of the Capitol in 2000 after a compromise was worked out between black lawmakers and the majority Republicans.

By Thursday evening, just 24 lawmakers have failed to respond to The Post and Courier poll to state their positions on the flag’s future. Some who responded earlier in the day said they would not make their positions known until those killed in the shooting were buried.

The Post and Courier plans to continue calling, emailing and tweeting to those who have not responded to the poll in an attempt to pin down their positions.

Doug Pardue, Jennifer Berry Hawes, Schuyler Kropf and Jason Emory Parker contributed to this report.