Politics & Government

Gov. McMaster talked big on defunding Planned Parenthood. But did he follow through?

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster made good on a campaign promise Friday, when he announced he had vetoed nearly $16 million in health care services in an effort to defund abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood.

"Taxpayer dollars must not directly or indirectly subsidize abortion providers like Planned Parenthood," McMaster told reporters Friday. "There are a variety of agencies, clinics and medical entities in South Carolina that receive taxpayer funding (that) offer important women's health and family planning services without performing abortions."

Attacking Planned Parenthood is a popular campaign tactic for Republicans.

But critics say the governor's action falls short of his intended mark, still leaving some state and federal money for the abortion provider on the table. They also add the measure won't stop abortions from being performed in South Carolina.

Planned Parenthood gets less than 1 percent of the state's Medicaid money, none of which pays for abortions. However, it does pay for other health care services, including birth control, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and gynecological exams.

Last year, Planned Parenthood's two S.C. clinics received $82,000 of the $42 million paid out to the state's 4,000 health care providers that treat Medicaid patients, according to the state Office of Revenue and Fiscal Affairs.

"It seems (like) an awful political move at this time," said Vicki Ringer, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Votes South Atlantic.

The Richland Republican vetoed almost $16 million in health care dollars from the state budget: $2.2 million in state money and the rest in federal grants. That was among 42 vetoes he announced Friday. He also struck from the budget:

A one-year law that would have removed so-called "other funds" state colleges and universities receive — for example, student fees and television contracts — from being reflected in the state budget. The governor's office said the veto ensures transparency. South Carolinians have a right to see how much money state colleges bring in beyond just state appropriations, McMaster's office said.

A one-year law that would have created a statewide data system to track and improve the state's workforce outcomes. The governor's office called the proposal a "meritorious idea," but said it contained too many loopholes and had accountability issues.

A one-year law that the governor's office said would have given preferential adoption treatment to foster parents ahead of family members if a child remained with a foster family for nine months. That problem should not be addressed by the budget, McMaster's office said.

McMaster did not veto $54 million slated to pay for a new forensics lab for the State Law Enforcement Division. He also did not veto a proposal that seeks to encourage retired police officers to come back to work as school resource officers.

With McMaster's actions Friday, the state budget goes into effect, one week after lawmakers passed it in a special session.

The Legislature will return for another special session in September and decide whether to override his vetoes. However, his veto to strip Planned Parenthood of taxpayer funding is expected to be supported by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

McMaster — up for election in November against Democrat James Smith, who called McMaster's actions Friday "all about throwing red meat to his base" — made his opposition to abortion a hallmark of his gubernatorial campaign. So did Republican state lawmakers and McMaster's GOP primary opponents, including Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson.

Bryant, who in June lost the GOP primary to McMaster, commended McMaster on Friday but added his sole veto will not stop tax dollars entirely from flowing to abortion providers since there are other pockets in the budget that support Planned Parenthood.

"This veto does not fully defund Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers," Bryant said. "Six thousand baby girls and baby boys deserve more."

But McMaster told reporters, "That is the best way we could do it. That's the strongest signal we can send, (and) it's the most responsible way to do it."

McMaster said Friday he will keep vetoing money headed toward Planned Parenthood until South Carolina gets permission from the federal government to defund the abortion providers by exempting them from the state's Medicaid provider network.

Providers do not get taxpayer dollars to perform abortions, except in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life is at stake.

In 2015-16, taxpayers paid for five abortions that fit that exemption — three to save the mother's life and two because the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. The procedures were done at hospitals, not Planned Parenthood clinics.

"It's too bad he (McMaster) played politics with South Carolina's health," Ringer said. "Seems like a low dive for our state."

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter