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S.C. House approves budget after all-nighter

With ties undone and shirt sleeves rolled up, frustrated and unsteady on their feet after nearly around-the-clock debate, members of the South Carolina House approved a $5.1 billion state spending plan Thursday morning.

A shortfall of half a billion dollars, election-year politics and an intractable divide over whether the state health insurance plan should ever cover the cost of an abortion pushed lawmakers to pull just their third overnighter in two decades, House veterans said.

"Rarely do you see the sun rise," said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland. "It was as charged as I have seen it, at times."

Republicans were "intent on exercising their authority, and we're intent on being heard and holding them accountable," Smith said.

Democrats on Tuesday had managed to push through, by a 57-54 vote, a change allowing the state health plan to cover abortions in cases of rape or incest, or if the health of the mother was at risk. But after a House GOP caucus meeting Wednesday, votes began falling along the 73-51 majority held by the GOP.

That included a vote, after several hours of early morning debate Thursday, to ban state insurance paying for any intentional abortions, with a handful of Republicans switching their previous vote, including House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

Harrell and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, both said it was the third time the House had stayed in session all night since they took office in the early 1990s. Two of the debates were about the budget, they said, while the third was whether to close the Barnwell low-level nuclear waste site.

As debate ended Thursday, sleepless lawmakers made plans to grab breakfast or, in the case of Rep. Anne Peterson Hutto, D-Charleston, a few hours of sleep before hotel checkout and a drive back to the coast to pick up the kids as they got out of school.

Most lawmakers said they had little time for sleep as the session stretched over 23 hours and Statehouse bells rang every few minutes to signal another roll call vote.

"I can't afford to go to sleep," said Cobb-Hunter, a member of the House Democratic leadership. "This is old hat for us. We have to let our troops sleep while we keep an eye on things."

House clerk Charles Reid said he and his staff had not slept in 40 hours and still faced at least four hours documenting motions, amendments and votes to put the budget and House journal to bed.

Reid called House staffers to head to a legislative breakfast reception and deliver a few plates of food to the House floor.

Though lawmakers pushed to adjourn debate, House Republicans defended the decision to keep working despite the late hour.

"You don't stay here after 10 or 11 unless everyone knows their votes," said Harrell. "You're just trying to get to the (final) vote."

Though they kept a 30-cent increase in the state's cigarette tax in the budget, raising $88 million, Republicans fought and defeated more than 30 Democratic proposals to raise taxes, eliminate tax breaks or exemptions, or attempt to make the state tax system more stable.

The budget is built around $980 million in federal money, both new and reserved, including $200 million in health care funds that Congress has yet to approve. Democrats argued Republicans were ignoring a more than $1 billion budget gap project for next year - and the impact cuts would have on those who depend on state services.

"There is a train coming next year," Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said. "We did nothing to prevent it."

The budget does not require unpaid leave for state or school employees, though many agencies and school districts may opt for furloughs because of budget cuts.

The spending plan also includes a controversial $10 million loan to keep The Heritage golf tournament in Hilton Head Island. The tournament is losing its sponsor, and the loan is a backup plan if organizers cannot find another. Lawmakers said the tournament employs more than 1,000 people and generates millions for the state economy. Critics argued state government should not be backing a golf tournament.

The bill now heads to the Senate, which will draft its own spending plan.