COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster blocked nearly $16 million intended to fund birth control, prenatal care and annual exams for poor South Carolinians to stop a tiny fraction of that from going to abortion-provider Planned Parenthood.
McMaster's veto of family-planning services for Medicaid patients — none of which includes abortions — was a large chunk of the $35.8 million total he struck from the Legislature's roughly $8 billion budget for 2018-19. The spending plan officially took effect when he delivered his vetoes late Thursday.
The governor eliminated funding to thousands of federally approved Medicaid providers for many family-planning services because there is no single line item for Planned Parenthood in the state budget.
The state's former Medicaid director, Tony Keck, said McMaster's decision will increase abortions if the veto stands.
"Access to birth control for men and women reduces unwanted pregnancies," said Keck, director under former Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. "Reducing access to birth control will increase unwanted pregnancies and increase abortions. You can't have it both ways."
The vetoes are not guaranteed to stand but it is not clear when the Legislature will return to consider overrides. It might not be for some time.
McMaster's family-planning veto was an attempt to follow through on a campaign pledge to stop any tax money from going to Planned Parenthood that he made repeatedly while winning a heated five-way GOP primary race last month.
But his veto fails to stop all money from going to Planned Parenthood.
Screenings for cancer and sexually-transmitted diseases are among the services that still can be paid from other available pots of tax money to Planned Parenthood and other medical providers in South Carolina.
Even after calling McMaster's veto a positive step, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, a staunch abortion critic who ran for governor, noted, "Your tax dollars will still flow to abortion providers."
McMaster striking $2.2 million in state Medicaid money and the accompanying $13.6 million in federal funds was seen as nothing more than partisan politics by abortion advocates.
“Gov. McMaster’s veto of family planning dollars today is a political stunt that will have very real implications for South Carolina’s women and families," said Vicki Ringer, a regional spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, which has offices Charleston and Columbia.
Since the veto doesn't eliminate all family-planning funds, the number of people affected is unknown. The Department of Health and Human Services — the state's Medicaid agency — is trying to figure that out.
It is also unclear whether the services stop immediately.
"We are currently assessing the legal implications," health agency spokeswoman Colleen Mullis said.
While McMaster struck nearly $16 million, the state's Medicaid agency has spent more than $40 million annually on family planning services since 2015. Planned Parenthood has received between $32,000 and $83,000 of that yearly, depending on patient visits, according to reports by the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.
"While the veto is cloaked in a moral judgment about abortion, the governor is well aware that these state dollars do not go toward abortion services," Ann Warner, chief executive of the Columbia-based Women's Rights and Empowerment Network, said in a statement. "What the veto does is hurt the ability of low-income women and families to be able to get the support they need to decide if, when, and how they create families."
The governor and other Republican lawmakers in the Statehouse oppose Planned Parenthood because its clinics offer abortions, though the organization receives no tax money for those procedures, either directly or indirectly. Federal law bans taxes from funding abortions except in cases in rape, incest or saving the mother's life. In the few abortions paid under those exceptions in South Carolina, none occurred in a Planned Parenthood clinic, according to state reports.
Still, McMaster continued Friday to suggest otherwise.
"I have stated many times that I am opposed to what Planned Parenthood is doing," McMaster said. "And the veto that I have is the most direct way to get to the money that is going to them for family-planning services, which in Planned Parenthood land means abortions."
Lawmakers are expected to return in September to elect members to a state regulatory board. That might be the earliest opportunity to consider overrides.
Legislators waited until January to consider overriding McMaster’s first set of budget vetoes in 2017. Last summer, he struck $56 million total from legislators’ $8 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that just ended, though override votes restored much of that.
In other line-item budget vetoes announced Friday, McMaster struck $20 million worth of what he labeled "earmarks and pork" and eliminated a clause that would have allowed the Department of Social Services to give preference to foster parents in the adoption process over a child's biological family.
Essentially, the proposal that legislators quietly inserted in the budget would have allowed foster parents who take care of children for at least nine months to be first in line to adopt those kids. The governor believes the changes would violate the rights of biological parents.
Lauren Sausser contributed to this report.