S.C. House lawmakers think they can muster the votes needed to overturn an expected veto by Gov. Mark Sanford of raising the nation's lowest cigarette tax.
The Senate voted Wednesday to agree to the House version of a bill to raise that tax to 57 cents a pack from 7 cents per pack. The higher tax would pay for $125 million in state-run health care programs for low-income residents and $5 million each for smoking cessation and cancer research. The bill now heads to Sanford's desk, whose office reiterated his opposition.
Sanford's veto has been the final hurdle in the decade-long push by public health advocates, hospitals and others to raise the tax. House leaders said Wednesday they are weary of the debate - a perennial flashpoint in the General Assembly.
"I'm working to try to talk to members and see if we can get the votes," said House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. "It's just an issue we'd like to find resolution on."
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, has also said he will vote for the bill. That's a change from 2008, when Harrell took to the well of the House to successfully kill a 50-cent increase.
Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said Wednesday that the governor would likely announce his decision next week, but that he remains opposed to any tax increase that does not include an equivalent tax cut elsewhere.
"We continue to believe it's unwise to raise the overall tax burden on South Carolinians," Fox said.
Even with leadership working in favor of increasing the cigarette tax, Bingham said the bill will likely pass or fail by a slim margin.
House members whipping votes think the bill has at least 80 members in favor of overriding the veto Wednesday (83 would guarantee an override), but as Bingham noted, the vote was not held Wednesday. The bill's passage could hinge on when the vote is scheduled and which members are out sick, on vacation or otherwise unable to vote.
Those supporting or opposing the bill will now turn up the pressure on lawmakers until the veto is announced, he said.
"I don't think anybody can say definitively one way or the other that we have two-thirds," Bingham said, referring to the supermajority percentage required to overturn a veto.
Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, noted that 62 of 124 House districts border another state. Raising the cigarette tax to 57-cents a pack would mean South Carolina would have a higher tax than both neighboring Georgia and North Carolina. Nationally, the increase would move South Carolina to the nation's 42nd-lowest tax, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Simrill supported a 30-cent increase, which would maintain a competitive advantage for gas stations, markets and other places that sell cigarettes.
"In this economy," Simrill said, "why would you give any reason for someone to spend money outside the state."
The House voted 62-53 in favor of the Senate's 50-cent increase. Fourteen members voted against any cigarette tax increase. If two-thirds of those supporting a 30-cent increase hold firm, Simrill said, Sanford's veto will be sustained.
The Senate has twice mustered the 31 votes to override a cigarette tax veto, but some lawmakers there also prefer a 30-cent tax. The Senate voted 41-1 Wednesday to increase the state's cigarette tax by 50 cents. That cigarette tax bill stripped out a controversial amendment, which would have sent $3.5 million of tobacco settlement funds to development-strapped counties along the state's busiest interstate, I-95.
That provision had been heavily lobbied for Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, the Senate's minority leader.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said Wednesday's Senate vote may not necessarily be an indication of how the vote will go on a Senate veto override. Peeler opposes the cigarette tax increase, he said, but voted to concur with the House passage of the bill because the House struck down the I-95 provision.
Peeler said he still thinks 30 cents is the "magic" cigarette tax increase figure in both the House and Senate. So, Peeler was a little slow in pulling the trigger on his vote for concurrence with the House bill, because he said he wanted to first see where his colleagues' thoughts were on the issue -- now and later. He said he will vote to sustain a Sanford veto, if it comes, and said he is confident several of his Republican colleagues will, too.
"It's going to be close either way," Peeler said.
Budget issues could also play a factor. The $125 million the cigarette tax would raise for health care would be matched by at least 3-to-1 by the federal government. Budget officials have said the state faces at least a $1 billion budget gap when federal stimulus money runs out in July 2011, half of that total being health care programs. Sanford, who leaves office in just over 200 days, will be long gone when the Legislature takes up its next budget in 2011, and lawmakers will still have gaping holes to cover in state services and salaries.
Where the money goes?
S.C. lawmakers have approved a 50 cents a pack increase in the cigarette tax that will raise $136 million.