The Senate passed a bill raising the state's lowest-in-the-nation 7-cent cigarette tax by 50 cents late Wednesday, but only after nearly eight hours of contentious debate that challenged Senate decorum and left lawmakers questioning each other's motives.
But few lawmakers expect Gov. Mark Sanford to approve the increase this year, and many said the Senate does not have the 31 votes necessary to override a governor's veto.
If the measure became law, it could raise $129 million in additional revenue, which would be targeted for a DHEC smoking cessation program and a Medicaid trust fund to offset the effects of disease caused by smoking.
At times it was unclear whether the proposal, which is in stark contrast to a 30-cent cigarette tax hike passed by the House earlier this month, was a bill about generating revenue for health care, or for improving airports and providing infrastructure for counties along the poverty-plagued I-95 corridor.
As the debate played out over hours, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal sat just outside the Senate chamber, joined by Supreme Court Justice Costa Pleicones.
Toal has told lawmakers S.C. courts are in deep trouble because of severe budget shortfalls, and that courts could be closed and personnel let go unless the Legislature finds money to keep them running.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, and Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, tried to insert provisions in the bill to use portions of the cigarette tax to aid the courts.
The Senate refused.
But Grooms pushed and wound up the day offering a series of motions that would have stalled or prevented a vote on the tax hike.
"I think it's going to come to pass that we missed an opportunity," said Sen. Mike Rose, R-Berkeley, lamenting the politicking that went on. "Some people wanted to put things on this bill to it - to sabotage it," he said.
"I don't feel the people of South Carolina were served well."
The Senate started out by gutting the House bill that called for the 30-cent cigarette tax raise and substituting the 50-cent raise. That amendment earmarked its revenue for health-related purposes, which historically has been one of the main sticking points in passing a higher tax.
South Carolina, a tobacco-raising state, has not raised its cigarette tax since 1977, and is one of only four states that have not raised the tax since 1999, joining California, Missouri and North Dakota.
The average cigarette tax rate in the nation, however, is $1.34 per pack, and the average cigarette tax in the nation's six tobacco-producing states is 40.2 cents per pack.
The Legislature approved a 30-cent cigarette tax increase two years ago, but Sanford vetoed the bill and the House sustained the veto.
Things deteriorated rapidly after Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, got the Senate to approve using $3.5 million from the proposed new cigarette tax revenue to fund infrastructure along I-95.
"If the rest of the state doesn't help I-95," Land said, "we will be your wards way into the future."
Using the funds will require the 17 counties along the interstate to put up a two-to-one match.
Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, warned lawmakers he could only vote for the tax increase if proceeds went to cover pure health care problems caused by smoking, such as those treated by the Hollings Cancer Center at MUSC.
When Land's proposal got what even Democrats said was a surprising nod of approval, Knotts asked for money to complete a road linking the Columbia Metropolitan Airport to I-26.
Grooms, clearly irritated by support for that measure, wanted funding for a grants program designed to lure low-cost air carriers into the state.
That proposal already is represented in a Senate bill on the calendar, but Columbia-area lawmakers currently are opposed to that measure because they are investigating whether a secret deal has been struck with an airline that would bring the low-cost carrier to an airport in Greenville, not Columbia or Charleston.
The House sent the Senate a provision in the 2010-2011 state budget raising the cigarette tax by 30 cents this year, and Republican lawmakers have generally opposed using the taxes in any way that would raise Medicaid costs.