COLUMBIA — Before the House voted to snuff out the chances of a cigarette tax increase this year, the Bible, poor children and integrity were thrown into the debate.
The plan to raise the state's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax for the first time since 1977 was defeated 54-57 Tuesday when the House fell some 20 votes of the two-third needed to override a veto by Gov. Mark Sanford.
Increasing the 7-cent per pack tax to 57 cents would have generated an estimated $159 million, and the plan was to split most of the money between Medicaid expansions and helping lower-income workers buy health insurance.
Supporters said it could have provided as many as 200,000 more South Carolinians with health care coverage, but opponents said it would have committed the state to funding pro-grams with a declining revenue source, since the money generated was expected to decrease as more people quit smoking.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, withstood personal attacks when he brought poor children into the mix. In the last three years, more than half of the births in South Carolina were paid for by Medicaid, Harrell said.
"What kind of message are we sending to our state's future generations? Using this tax to expand a government entitlement program will set up an expectation of non-responsibility and establish an entitlement society," Harrell said. "These children will grow up being taught that it is the government's job to care for them."
The bill, which passed the House and Senate just last week, would have raised Medicaid income eligibility for families of four to $54,000.
"Medicaid was created to be a safety net for the poor; $54,000 a year is not poor," Harrell said.
Democrats were outraged at the comment, and Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood, said he felt like "a dagger went through me." He wants Harrell to apologize.
Rep. Joe Jefferson, D-Pineville, said the legislators owed it to their constituents to pass the bill.
"What happened, for example, to wanting to be our brother's keeper?" he asked.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott of St. Matthews said it was "shameful to blame the children." He added, "Someone hasn't read the same Bible that I have."
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, was especially disdainful of Harrell's remarks. She said they were "unnecessary, uncalled for and totally inappropriate," and she went on to say that "some of us of color" recognize "code words."
Harrell said he stands by the comments, arguing that some legislators are trying to drive Medicaid eligibility up to higher income levels year after year.
"I do what I think is right," he said. "The chips fall where they will."
House Majority Leader Jim Merrill of Daniel Island defended Harrell. He said he was "offended" by the interpretation of the speaker's comments.
"Don't impugn our integrity because we happen to want to use the money in a different manner," Merrill said. "It doesn't make us anti-health care and it certainly doesn't make us anti-children."
Harrell said he would sponsor legislation next year to increase the cigarette tax, and spend the summer and fall studying the best way to use it toward health care by leveraging the private sector.
Earlier in the day, Sanford announced his decision to veto the bill.
"I can't in good conscious sign off on something that both increases the overall tax burden, and is completely irresponsible in the way it expands a host of Medicaid benefits without any way to pay for them in future years.
"That gives state government three alternatives to keep providing those benefits: raise taxes, cut other programs or start encouraging people to smoke more to foot the bill," Sanford said in a statement.