Politics & Government

With nuclear bills on deck, abortion debates overtake SC Legislature

The S.C. State House
The S.C. State House

Having yet to pass any solutions to a nine-month-old nuclear fiasco in Fairfield County, the S.C. Legislature on Wednesday staggered toward its last week, overwhelmed by debates over abortion.

The S.C. House restarted the process of amending the state's $8.2 billion spending plan Wednesday. A frustrated House budget chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, dropped hotly debated amendments to add $54 million to the budget for a new forensic lab for the State Law Enforcement Division and another $13 million for security upgrades at the state's prisons.

That allowed House members — all up for re-election this year — to propose changes they wanted made in the budget, setting off a debate over defunding S.C. abortion clinics.

Meanwhile, the state Senate sloshed through the second day of a debate on whether to outlaw "dismemberment" abortion.

With only now three days left in the legislative session, the time-consuming debates, which raged into Wednesday night, peeved lawmakers from both parties.

“We started this session on Day 1 saying nuclear was our No. 1 priority, and we were going to pass something on nuclear," said state Sen. Mike Fanning, the Fairfield County Democrat whose district includes two partially built, abandoned nuclear reactors that set off the crisis. "We still have not passed a bill with four days left in the session.”

"This debate has a number of Republicans frustrated, largely because it is focusing on amendments that don't have a chance of passing," said state Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster.

House debates budget

Poised to debate a 38-page budget amendment Wednesday, House budget chairman White — to some lawmakers' surprise — dropped a proposal to add money to the state budget to build a new SLED lab to analyze rape kits and make prisons safer.

The state's budget — which takes effect July 1 — still must be amended in the S.C. House before it is sent to the Senate. After that, it will go to budget negotiators from both chambers.

The S.C. House amended the budget just after midnight Thursday, setting it up for budget negotiations between the House and Senate.

Leaders of the overwhelmingly Republican House had hoped to adopt the budget last week. But that plan was blocked by House Democrats, who argued spending $54 million for a new SLED lab was too much when state workers are underpaid and state agencies are underfunded.

Instead, White offered lawmakers Wednesday a "slimmed down" budget amendment, including $15 million in S.C. lottery dollars to pay for school safety measures.

But, Wednesday night, the House's budget debate zeroed in on money that goes to abortion providers in South Carolina, prompted by several amendments filed by House Republicans.

Democrats argued the House should pay more attention to underfunded state agencies and underpaid state workers.

"We have problems with SLED funding. We have problems with K-12 funding, with teacher pay funding, with DOT (Transportation Department) funding," said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg. "The list goes on and on."

Blocking dismemberment abortions

The Senate waded through six-plus hours of debate Wednesday over a proposal to outlaw dismemberment abortions — without reaching a compromise or getting to a vote.

In those rare abortions, typically reserved for late-term pregnancies with not-viable fetuses or serious medical complications, the physician uses forceps to pull apart an unborn fetus before removing it in pieces.

Democrats, trying to filibuster the bill, and state Sen. Richard Cash, an Anderson Republican who wants all abortions outlawed, together proposed more than 165 amendments to the proposed dismemberment ban.

Each amendment could take up to 20 minutes to debate on the Senate floor, likely enough time to run out the clock for the legislative session, which ends next Thursday.

Through much of the night, the Senate debated Cash’s amendments, including proposals to charge doctors with murder for performing dismemberment abortions and to remove exceptions in the bill for medical emergencies that threaten the life of the mother.

Those proposals failed, but not before Senate Democrats had squeezed out the maximum possible time debating each of them. Most Senate Republicans voted against Cash’s amendments, wanting to keep the “dismemberment” ban as simple as possible so that it still has the votes to pass, eventually.

If the bill passes, doctors who perform the procedure — except in life-threatening medical emergencies — could be charged with a felony and sentenced to two years in jail, slapped with a $10,000 fine or both.

But just before senators went home, the Senate amended the bill in a 28-10 vote Wednesday night that would outlaw nearly all abortions in South Carolina, only allowing exceptions in cases of rape, incest or medical emergencies that could seriously harm the pregnant woman or threaten her life.

If passed, the new law would certainly spark a court challenge.

Nuclear conferees

Meanwhile, House and Senate negotiators failed to reach an agreement Wednesday on how deeply to cut SCE&G's power bills during an hourlong debate.

The typical SCE&G bill rose by about $27 a month as the utility was building two new reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, a project it abandoned last July after years of cost overruns and construction delays.

The House, with the backing of Gov. Henry McMaster, insists on an 18-percent rate cut that would strip the entire amount that SCE&G continues to charge its 700,000 customers in their power bills for the useless reactors. An opinion issued Wednesday by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson concluded lawmakers legally could defend that 18-percent rate-cut in court.

But the Senate would not budge from its proposed 13-percent cut, a number derived from a financial study that found lawmakers could slash that amount without forcing SCE&G into bankruptcy.

“In the House’s view, it is rewarding wrongdoers,” House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said of the Senate’s proposed 13 percent cut. “We are not going to reward a wrongdoer.”

Both chambers expect SCE&G inevitably to file suit challenging the temporary rate cut — likely on the grounds that it is financially unreasonable. But senators say they can better defend a 13-percent cut in court because of the financial study's findings.

“As much angst as there is that someone needs to be punished, you are perhaps giving some indication to the ratepayer that they are going to be getting something they won’t,” said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, referring to the House's proposed 18 percent cut.

If the two sides can’t agree on a rate cut, the proposal will die for the year. Gov. McMaster has threatened to veto anything less than an 18-percent reduction, but the Senate might not have enough votes to pass a cut that large.

House and Senate negotiators have not yet scheduled any follow-up meetings to settle that difference.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect legislative changes that were unable to be included by the print deadline.

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter; Avery Wilks: 803-771-8362, @AveryGWilks