Politics & Government

House overrides cig tax veto, 90 to 29

UPDATED: 1:00 p.m.

House lawmakers voted Wednesday to override Gov. Mark Sanford's veto and thereby increase the state's cigarette tax to 57 cents from its current 7 cents level.

The vote was 90 to 29.

Now, all eyes are on the Senate to see if they too can muster the two-thirds majority vote needed to override Sanford's veto and make the tax increase law. The Senate is expected to take up the measure in coming days.

Proceeds are projected to provide about $125 million annually for state-run health care programs for the poor, $5 million for cancer research at the Medical University of South Carolina and $5 million for anti-smoking programs to help smokers stop and prevent young people from starting.

Tuesday, Gov. Mark Sanford again vetoed a cigarette tax increase but added he would support it if it was paired with a dollar-for-dollar tax reduction elsewhere, preferable in the state's income tax.

-Gina Smith

Earlier:

It is up to state lawmakers now to decide if South Carolina will raise its cigarette tax, ending its distinction of having the nation's lowest tax on smokes.

Republican Gov. Mark Sanford again washed his hands of a cigarette tax increase Tuesday, vetoing the General Assembly's proposed 50-cent-a-pack hike on ideological grounds.

As Sanford made public his decision to spike the bill, all sides ratcheted up the pressure.

Those hoping to kill the tax encouraged lawmakers to side with Sanford.

Those arguing the state, staring down massive budget shortfalls next year, needs the estimated $135 million in added revenue that a higher cigarette tax would produce, urged lawmakers to overturn Sanford's veto.

"For the last seven years, we've advocated an increase to the cigarette tax, while at the same time insisting that we ought not to raise the overall tax burden on working South Carolinians," Sanford said.

Sanford consistently has said he would not support a cigarette tax hike without a corresponding tax cut, preferably in the state's income tax. The two-term Republican governor says tax cuts will boost the state's economy, creating jobs.

Sanford said South Carolina's problem isn't shrinking revenue - down $2 billion a year since the start of The Great Recession - but a burdensome tax code. He pointed to the rioters in the streets of Greece, saying the root of South Carolina's fiscal problems stems from an overspending Legislature, not undertaxed citizens.

"This addiction to spending has already had disastrous effects," Sanford charged in his message accompanying the veto.

Next fiscal year, the state faces an added $1.2 billion revenue shortfall, likely to result in more layoffs, furloughs and cuts to state services.

David Jordan of the Association of Convenience Stores and S.C. Petroleum Marketers supports Sanford's veto. Jordan, who operates 41 Hot Spot convenience stores in South Carolina and seven in North Carolina, said raising the cigarette tax above Georgia and North Carolina would cost S.C. businesses revenue.

"Tourists load up (on cigarettes) when they come here," Jordan said. "We don't need to be helping Georgia and North Carolina. We need revenue in South Carolina."

Raising South Carolina's cigarette tax to 57 cents, from its existing levy of 7 cents, would raise an added $135 million a year it is projected, money that would be used to offset health care costs for the poor. The money would be spent on the federal Medicaid program, making it eligible for $3 in federal money for every $1 in state money spent.

Supporters of the increase wasted no time marshaling forces to overcome Sanford's objections.

"Since 2002 - our first opportunity to raise the cigarette tax - the state has lost more than $3.5 billion in new federal matching dollars that could have been used for Medicaid programs and services," said Teresa Arnold, legislative director for AARP South Carolina.

Arnold cited repeated polls that show strong support in South Carolina for raising the cigarette tax. "It is our hope that enough votes can be obtained from members of the General Assembly to do the right thing and override this veto," Arnold said.

However, the S.C. House may not be able to muster the two-thirds vote necessary to override Sanford's veto. There are 124 House members; two-thirds of those present and voting on the day the veto is taken up must vote to override it.

In the 46-member Senate, a two-thirds vote margin is thought obtainable. Senators have twice approved a 50-cent cigarette tax hike by margins sufficient to override a veto.

Still, that vote is not assured.

"We've got to go to work now," said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who took to the Senate floor Tuesday to speak about Sanford's veto.

Lourie questioned Sanford's concern for S.C. residents, noting the state's low-tax cigarettes attract bootleggers. Other advocates say a tax hike would lead to lower smoking rates, particularly among youths.

Another potential hurdle a cigarette tax increase must overcome is that, for years, it has been pushed by Democrats in a Republican-controlled state.

Democrats pounded Sanford again Tuesday.

"Once again, Mark Sanford has blindly ignored the needs of our state for the sake of political ideology," said Carol Fowler, S.C. Democratic Party chairwoman.

"If Gov. Sanford were in touch with his constituents, he would know that vetoing an increase in the cigarette tax seems foolish to the great majority of working people."

WHAT'S NEXT?

S.C. lawmakers now will vote whether to override Republican Gov. Mark Sanford's veto of an increase in the cigarette tax.

Seeking two-thirds. Two- thirds of the lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House have to vote to overturn the governor's veto. The Senate likely has the votes to overturn. However, it's unclear if 83 of the House's 124 members will vote to override the governor's veto.

Seeking the right time. Leaders in the House and Senate will decide when those bodies will take up the veto override. Since Sanford's veto can be overturned by a two-thirds vote of members present, the timing of the vote could determine if Sanford's veto is sustained or overridden.

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