COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Legislature's staunchest abortion foes tried unsuccessfully Thursday to derail an $8 billion budget compromise over less than $90,000 that Planned Parenthood receives through state health insurance plans.
Votes of 30-9 in the Senate and 84-28 in the House sent the agreement to Gov. Henry McMaster, who will issue his line-item vetoes next week.
While the debate in both chambers focused on Planned Parenthood, the state budget doesn't direct any money to the controversial organization for abortions or any other services.
Legislators argued over the small amount reimbursed to clients in the state's Medicaid program and health plan who went to Planned Parenthood's South Carolina two clinics for health services such as birth control, annual exams, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. Last year, Planned Parenthood received $87,600 from the $44 million in health plan reimbursements.
State Sen. Richard Cash, a staunch pro-life advocate, said he recognizes state money doesn't fund abortions.
But "if you believe abortion is the killing of a human being, organizations such as Planned Parenthood shouldn’t get any government funding whatsoever," said Cash, a Powdersville Republican who earlier this year pushed to criminalize all abortions in South Carolina.
He called on his Republican colleagues to send the budget back to the negotiating table, three days before the fiscal year starts, saying anyone who doesn't is essentially voting for Planned Parenthood.
After that argument failed, the fight picked up in the House.
"There's one thing left to do for those who care deeply about the unborn," said Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood, a former youth baseball coach who likened the budget debate to a game in the ninth inning with two outs. "I invite you today to swing at that last pitch and not just let it go by."
Other Republicans countered the efforts fueled by misinformation.
Federal law requires the state's Medicaid program to pay for abortions in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is at risk. While 11 such abortions were covered under those exceptions in 2015 and 2016, none occurred in a Planned Parenthood clinic, according to the latest revenue report.
"You are voting against the budget for an illusion at the expense of reality," said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia.
Planned Parenthood and abortion was one of the leading topics in the race for the Republican governor's primary. Gov. Henry McMaster, who won the primary, called Planned Parenthood "the most extreme, the most destructive organization in this country today."
Planned Parenthood is among about 4,400 federally approved providers of family planning services, said House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson.
A clause inserted in the House budget proposal — and removed during negotiations with the Senate — would have struck Planned Parenthood from that list, which could have required rejecting more than $30 million in federal Medicaid money and replacing it with state money. Cash argued the state's Medicaid agency may have to switch money around only temporarily if the Trump administration eventually approved the organization's removal.
Other Republicans countered the better option was to let a request already in process play out.
Last August, McMaster ordered the Medicaid agency to seek federal permission to remove the group from its provider roll. But it's not a simple process. The agency's proposal will likely be sent to the federal government later this summer, following a required public comment phase.
Also in the special session, the Legislature easily overrode McMaster's veto of legislation expanding the nonviolent crimes that ex-cons can get removed from their records. The bill, backed by the state Chamber of Commerce, became law Thursday following votes of 108-1 in the House and 35-5 in the Senate.
The law still requires ex-cons to keep a clean record before applying for expungement. How long ranges from three years to 20, depending on the crime.
"It's an opportunity for citizens to go back and lead productive lives," Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R-York, a former solicitor, said while calling for the override.