Henry McMaster campaign abortion (copy)

Gov. Henry McMaster points at the building housing a Planned Parenthood clinic near downtown Columbia during a campaign news conference on May 29, 2018. McMaster has worked to show off his pro-life stances. Andy Shain/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina legislators on Wednesday upheld Gov. Henry McMaster's veto that struck $16 million from Medicaid's budget in an effort to block a tiny fraction of that from going to Planned Parenthood. 

Democrats had planned to contest the veto, but the House's GOP leaders used a little-used procedural move to keep the money out of the budget with no debate whatsoever. The motion itself wasn't even debatable.

"They're playing politics with women's and families' lives," said Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia. 

The line McMaster struck in July funded birth control, prenatal care and annual exams for poor South Carolinians who are insured through Medicaid. That move not only potentially blocked money to thousands of federally approved health care providers, but it didn't accomplish McMaster's goal of striking all tax money Planned Parenthood receives for non-abortion health care services. That's because money for other family planning services such as cancer screenings and sexually-transmitted diseases, which Planned Parenthood also provides, are funded through other parts of Medicaid's budget. 

McMaster largely undid that veto a week later by issuing an executive order directing the state's Medicaid agency to continue paying for the services by dipping into reserves. The other part of the order directed the agency to take Planned Parenthood off its provider rolls, as a direct attempt at blocking any tax money from reaching the organization, which also provides abortion at its two clinics in South Carolina. 

But that's been blocked in court. The state is appealing the judge's decision.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, called it shameful that the GOP majority would be willing to waste taxpayers' money fighting that lawsuit.  

Overall, the state’s Medicaid agency spends more than $40 million annually on family planning services — none of that for abortions. 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.

That won't change, unless the courts ultimately rule in McMaster's favor or the federal government eventually approves a separate request that would remove Planned Parenthood from the list of approved providers. That waiver request is in the early stages.  

Still, McMaster, who has made Planned Parenthood funding a campaign issue, applauded the House's decision. 

"No taxpayer dollars should directly or indirectly subsidize abortions," said his spokesman Brian Symmes. Because of McMaster's executive order, all health care providers "that don't provide abortions will be fully funded." 

The upheld veto does mean $16 million — $2.2 million of that from state taxes — is struck from the state budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. 

The Medicaid agency must "find it somewhere else" to cover those services, said Vicki Ringer, a regional spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood. "Somebody, somewhere isn't getting health care."

Also on Wednesday, the Legislature overturned a veto that blocked local governments across South Carolina from recouping millions in cleanup costs from Hurricane Irma and the 2014 ice storm.

While McMaster supported transferring leftover federal assistance money to the local governments, he vetoed the budget clause because it also directed the Emergency Management Division to distribute $500,000 to nonprofits to rebuild homes damaged in the 2015 flooding disaster.  

The overwhelming vote by the House and Senate to overturn that veto means nonprofits have until Dec. 1 to apply to the emergency response agency for grants of up to $50,000.  

"It's for materials, not labor. It's so Habitats (for Humanity) and churches that want to do mission work can buy the lumber and sheet rock or whatever’s required so owners can get back in their houses," said Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson.

While that goal is meritorious, giving money to nonprofits doesn't achieve the "standard of transparency our state has strived for," Symmes said after the vote.  

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Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.