Columbia -- The South Carolina Senate rejected a total ban on state-insured abortions Wednesday, opting to continue to allow coverage in the cases of rape, incest or if the life of the mother is at stake.
The House budget banned the state health insurance plan, which covers state employees as well as most teachers and local government employees, from covering the cost of any abortion procedure. Last year the state covered a half-dozen abortions, all because the life of the mother was at stake.
While House lawmakers debated the change into the early morning hours, the Senate dealt with the question quickly. Senators voted 24-17 against a total ban.
"It still has a shot because of the conference committee," said the amendment's sponsor, Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville and a candidate for Congress, of the final budget negotiations between the House and Senate to be held later this year. The House, Thomas said, had already vetted the abortion debate.
Democrats said the proposal could further punish women who had been target of crime.
"I can't imagine what a family would have to go through if a sister, daughter or wife was a victim of rape," said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland. "This debate is about protecting the rights of victims."
Senators also were working on a compromise that would allow the coverage only if women reported the rape to law enforcement or sought medical treatment within a certain number of days.
Lawmakers also approved a handful of changes to the $5 billion spending plan to squeeze out every bit of money to prevent layoffs.
The Senate approved an amendment by Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, that allows school districts to use money for salaries instead of reimbursing teachers up to $275 for school-supply purchases.
According to estimates from state education associations, which supported the idea, the move would generate enough money to pay 40 teachers' salaries among the seven school districts in Richland and Lexington counties.
Lawmakers also allowed districts to suspend salary increases for the budget year beginning July 1.
"It's a sad commentary," Jackson said of lawmakers paying for salaries out of another form of compensation. "These are unusual times. It is probably the epitome of robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Lawmakers rejected Sen. Shane Massey's idea to use a portion of lawmakers' expense stipends to fund state troopers. Massey, R-Aiken, would have tapped $100 of the $1,000 lawmakers receive monthly for in-district expenses and given it to the Highway Patrol.
"It sends a very bad signal that were not willing to do anything from our personal income," Massey said.
Senators also proposed a number of amendments intended to increase disclosure and transparency among state agencies, colleges and other institutions.
One change that was approved would require state colleges to issue a report within 30 days of raising tuition, including how board members voted on the tuition increase. But another measure requiring colleges post their spending online was rejected.
The Senate expects to finish the budget debate today.